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the Image of God
DANIEL MAHER MURTAUGH
A University of Florida Book
The University Presses of Florida
Gainesville / 1978
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Murtaugh, Daniel Maher.
Piers Plowman and the image of God.
Originally presented as the author's thesis,
"A University of Florida book."
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Langland, William, 1330?-1400? Piers the
Plowman. 2. Image of God in literature. I. Title.
PR2017.I4M8 1978 821'.1 77-25544
The University Presses of Florida is the
scholarly publishing agency for the
State University System of Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1978 BY THE BOARD OF
REGENTS OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA
TYPOGRAPHY BY MODERN TYPOGRAPHERS, INCORPORATED
PRINTED BY STORTER PRINTING CO., INCORPORATED
THIS STUDY had its remote origins in a Middle English seminar at
Holy Cross College conducted by Thomas J. Grace, S.J., an inspiring
teacher who raised many of the questions about Piers Plowman that
I have since tried to answer. To my sorrow, I can now only guess at
his judgment of my work and give him thanks in a memorial dedica-
tion for his share in its best pages.
My work first took clear shape as a doctoral dissertation written at
Yale University under the direction of E. Talbot Donaldson, and it
had at every stage the benefit of his penetrating and constructive criti-
cism and his unsurpassed knowledge of the manuscript tradition.
Marie Borroff, Douglas Cole, and Alice Miskimin also read the
original manuscript and made many helpful suggestions for its im-
provement. R. H. Bowers and Thomas D. Hill read and criticized
later versions with clear-eyed sympathy. Valuable information and
counsel also came from George Kane and Robert Levine. I am grate-
ful to the Danforth Foundation for the graduate fellowship that sup-
ported me as I wrote the original dissertation, and to the Graduate
School of Boston University for its help in defraying typing expenses
at a later stage.
Finally, I should like to thank my dear wife, Kristen, for her good
humor and moral support through the last several years of my tenancy
on Piers's half-acre.
To my mother and father
and to the memory of
Thomas J. Grace, S.J.
1. The Image of God 1
2. The Dialectic of Truth 5
3. The Social Dimension 31
4. Learning and Grace 63
5. The Pardon, Piers, and Christ 98
6. The Essential Poem at
the Centre of Things 123
the Image of God
1. The Image of God
A COMMON EXPERIENCE of those coming to Piers Plowman for the
first time is a sense of surprise that, somehow or other, the whole
thing does manage to hold together. It can easily be said-and it often
is-that here and here Langland has lost control of his materials, but
one cannot escape the general impression that he has a good deal
more control over them than we do. The materials are certainly vast
and varied. In the words of one critic they are "nothing less than the
history of Christianity as it unfolds both in the world of the Old
and New Testaments and in the heart of the individual Christian-
two seemingly distinct realms between which the poet's allegory moves
with dizzying rapidity."' It is this movement that I shall attempt to
chart, since it is the chief problem and the chief glory of the poem.
Movement implies life, and in the present study I should like to ex-
amine Piers Plowman in the light of certain pervasive elements of
medieval thought which had a potential for the sort of life Langland's
voice would give them.
Studies of Langland's intellectual backgrounds have advanced be-
yond attempts to align Piers Plowman closely with medieval sche-
mata of scriptural exegesis or spiritual life. The fourfold sense of
scripture and the "Three Lives" of Walter Hilton and others certainly
show tendencies of thought that are reflected in Langland's poem, but
1. E. Talbot Donaldson, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature,
Revised, ed. M. H. Abrams, Donaldson, et al. (New York: W. W. Norton and
Co., 1968), 1:274.
2 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
their direct and univocal application has been found reductive.2 Some
more recent students of Langland's intellectual debts have allowed
him a good deal more freedom but have still tended to trim his work
to fit its sources. Thus one critic tells us that Piers Plowman is "apoc-
alyptic," that its emphasis is social and historical rather than indi-
vidual and subjective.3 Another tells us that it is mystical, that it
follows in the intense subjective tradition of Saint Bernard, that its
emphasis is almost exclusively individual and only metaphorically
social and historical.4 The trouble with each approach is not in what
it affirms but in what it denies. In Langland we have a poet who,
when faced with two alternative modes of meaning, generally tries for
both at once.
A trend of medieval thought which seems conducive to this sort of
synthetic procedure takes as its point of departure the commonplace
notion suggested in my title: that man was created in the image and
? likeness of God. This idea was appealed to explicitly or implicitly by
Small medieval thinkers, in connection with an astonishing range of
Topics. Augustine found images of the Trinity in human self-con-
Ssciousness and in memory, intellect, and will. Saint Bernard developed
j the idea mystically, saying that man bore God's image indelibly and
that he restored the divine likeness, lost by sin, as he approached
contemplation. On the other side of the ill-guarded border between
theology and philosophy, many thinkers tended to explain epistemol-
Sogy by a comparison with the procession of the Trinity or with the
divine act of Creation. The same thinkers might also explain the
2. The most consistent attempt to apply the methods of scriptural exegesis
to the poem is in D. W. Robertson and Bernard F. Huppe, Piers Plowman and
Scriptural Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951). See criti-
cisms by Morton W. Bloomfield in Speculum 27 (1952):245-49, and Modern
Philology 56 (1956):73-78; and by Donaldson in Dorothy Bethurum, ed.,
Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1960), pp. 1-26. The "Three Lives" interpretation was first proposed by
Henry W. Wells, "The Construction of Piers Plowman," PMLA 44 (1929):
123-49; and adopted by R. W. Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind (Lon-
don: Jonathan Cape, 1939), pp. 102-3; and by Nevill Coghill, "The Character
of Piers Plowman Considered from the B-Text," Medium Aevum 2 (1933):
108-35. See criticisms by R. W. Frank, Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Sal-
vation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp. 34-44.
3. Morton W. Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apoc-
alypse (NewB.runswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press n.d. ), pp. 99,
105 i passim.
4. Edward Vasta, The Spual Basis of Piers Plowman (The Hague: Mou-
ton, 1965), pp. 33-37, and pass
The Image of God 3
Trinity or the Creation by comparisons with epistemology. The argu-
ment could change directions without warning, and so the relation of
divine and human was not finally logical but metaphorical. Further-
more, if the divine Mind gave concrete expression to Its ideas in the
order of the visible universe, it could follow that Its image, the human
mind, could give a similarly concrete expression of its ideas in that
part of creation which was its most direct responsibility: the order of
society. As society approached a perfect image of man's rational na-
ture, it could be said to reveal in a corporate way the Exemplar of
that nature, the divine Mind Itself. It seems to me that this elaboration
of the idea of man as the image of God constitutes a chief poetic re-
source in medieval thought, and that Langland recognized it as such.
The tradition certainly seems to shed light on the bewildering struc-
ture of Langland's poem, with its constant changes of setting and
perspective and its insistence on real and immediate connections be-
tween areas of experience which, to the modern reader, seem com-
pletely disconnected. The action of the poem takes place at once in
society and within the dreamer-narrator. Its time is at once the four-
teenth-century present and various crucial moments in sacred history,
most recurrently the moment of the Redemption. It speaks of the rela-
tion of man to his Creator and of the proper management of a money
economy in the same terms, as if, indeed, the two subjects were the
same seen under two aspects. These strategies of the poem suggest a
view of reality as total metaphor, seen most clearly as such when the
human mind looks through it to reality's source and its own exemplar
in the divine Mind.
Man's status as the image and likeness of God is given its most
poignant expression in the Incarnation. Here, in Christ's assumption
of humanity and His performance of human good works, man's na-
ture and works gain a value they do not have of themselves. Hence,
simply to "Do-well" has consequences that reach into the realm of
mystery. The dreamer of Piers Plowman searches for the meaning of
"Do-well" and eventually finds it not in a discursive formulation but
in the all-sufficient Person of Christ, Whose Redemption is achieved
through the human nature the dreamer first knew as Piers. The many
moral issues raised in the poem converge on this figure, who thus uni-
fies the poem despite his infrequent appearances in it.
In attempting to describe how all these things happen, I shall deal
primarily with the B-text. On several occasions, though, I shall con-
sider passages added or given new developments in the C-text. Often
4 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
the consistency of certain revisions in C can confirm the existence of
an important motif in B and cast some new light on the general lit-
erary relations of the two versions. I am assuming throughout that
the A-, B-, and C-texts are substantially the work of one author,
William Langland. The textual and circumstantial evidence for such
an assumption has recently been set forth by George Kane,5 and I can
add to his persuasive arguments the fact that unity of authorship
works very well as an hypothesis for literary criticism.
5. Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London: University of
London, Athlone Press, 1965).
2. The Dialectic of Truth
LANGLAND'S THOUGHT moves most rapidly in some of his more theo-
retical and psychological passages, and I begin with a consideration
of four of these: the speech of Lady Holy Church, Piers's directions
for finding Truth, Wit's account of the "Castle of Caro," and the Tree
of Charity "amyddes mannes body."
Most readers of Piers Plowman have recognized the importance of
Lady Holy Church's speech in laying the doctrinal groundwork for
the whole poem. It also introduces one of the key poetic methods
which will recur throughout, for in Piers Plowman doctrine and poetic
method are curiously intertwined. Lady Holy Church uses the word
"truth" in a remarkable way. She descends from the "toure on a toft"
to the Field of Folk and uses the word as a name for God, perhaps
God the Father, with a clear emphasis on His transcendence:
"The tour on be toft," quod she, truee is PerInne,
And wolde Pat ye wrou3te as his word techek.
For he is fader of feip, and formed yow alle
Bopje with fel and with face, and yaf yow fyue wittes
For to worship hym Perwik while ye ben here."
1. I cite the following editions of Piers Plowman throughout: George Kane,
ed., Piers Plowman: The A Version (London: University of London, Athlone
Press, 1960); George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, eds., Piers Plowman:
The B Version (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1975); and
(for the C-text, except where noted) Walter W. Skeat, ed., The Vision of
6 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Some fifty lines later, after Lady Holy Church has identified herself,
the dreamer, on his knees, asks her how he may save his soul. She
responds with a different use of the term:
"Whan alle tresors arn tried treupe is be beste;
I do it on Deus caritas to deme be sope.
It is as dereworpe a drury as deere god hymseluen.
For who is trewe of his tonge, teller noon ooper,
Doopb e werkes Perwib and wilneb no man ille,
He is a god by be gospel, a ground and o lofte,
And ek ylik to oure lord by Seint Lukes wordss"
We should pause over these lines because they involve the sort of
complication that the whole poem will develop. "Truth" now does
not seem to mean "God" but something else as valuable "as deere
god hymseluen." It is no longer transcendent, but is in each man who
"is trewe of his tonge" and lives a moral life. But the term cannot be
transferred to the immanent without bringing some of its transcendent
character with it, so that the "trewe" man becomes "a god by be
gospel a ground and o lofte." His good works resound in heaven
because they are the expression of Truth, at once the principle of
moral action and heaven's King.
It is tempting to see in these last two lines the mystical doctrine of
"deification," according to which the soul in contemplation restores its
"likeness" (similitudo) to God to its full clarity and achieves a transi-
tory foretaste of the Beatific Vision.3 But I think we must resist this
temptation because Lady Holy Church makes no specific reference
William Concerning Piers the Plowman, In Three Parallel Texts ... ,2 vols.
(London: Oxford University Press, 1886), hereafter Parallel Texts. I have
eliminated the raised period with which Skeat separates half-lines and have
silently supplied the punctuation that this sometimes obviates. I have also
omitted editorial apparatus in quoting Kane and Donaldson.
2. The text in Luke is uncertain. Skeat suggests Luke 16:10-13 or 8:21 (see
Parallel Texts, 2:23). T. P. Dunning, Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of
the A-Text (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1937), p. 44, suggests Luke 6:35. Any of
these, and many more, would fit here.
3. As does Edward Vasta, Spiritual Basis, pp. 68-83, taking up a suggestion
made somewhat tentatively and in another connection by Greta Hort, Piers
Plowman and Contemporary Religious Thought (London: Macmillan, n.d.
), pp. 81, 115, and Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 186.
The Dialectic of Truth 7
to the disciplines of mysticism.j he refers instead to the ordinary life
of good works. Still, by her account, this ordinary goodness has re-
percussions which do seem to suggest something as extraordinary as
mystical contemplation. What she seems to be doing is instructing the
dreamer in the total meaning of ethical actions in a universe informed
by grace. The lesson is as difficult to grasp in discursive terms as is
the ambiguity of that central term "truth." Morality is readily in-
telligible on a strictly natural plane, but if one introduces its super-
natural dimension, it becomes a mystery.
The argument has gotten beyond Will the dreamer. What exactly
does she mean by "truth"? "'Yet haue I no kynde knowyng,' quod I,
'ye mote kenne me bettre, / By what craft in my cors it comseb, and
where'" (B.I.138-39). Her answer to this "doted daffe" is, if any-
thing, more difficult than what went before:
"It is a kynde knowyng, Pat kennel in Pyn herte
For to louen bi lord leuere ban piselue.
No dedly synne to do, deye Pei3 Pow sholdest,
This I trowe be true; who kan teche Pee bettre,
Loke bow suffre hym to seye and sipen lere it after.
For Pus witnesses his word; werche Pow Perafter.
For true teller bat loue is triacle of heuene:
May no synne be on hym seene Pat vseb bat spice,
And alle hise werkes he wrou3te with loue as hym liste;
And lered it Moyses for be leueste Pyng and most lik to heuene,
And ek Pe plante of pees, most precious of vertues.
For heuene my3te nat holden it, so heuy it seemed,
Til it hadde of be erbe yeten hitselue.4
And whan it hadde of bis fold flessh and blood taken
Was neuere leef vpon lynde lighter Perafter,
And portatif and persaunt as be point of a nedle
That my3te noon Armure it lette ne none hei3e walles.
And for to known it kyndely, it comseb by myght,
And in Pe herte Pere is be heed and be hei3e well.
For in kynde knowynge in herte Per comseb a my3t,
And Pat fallen to be fader Pat formed vs alle,
4. The phrase means "alloyed itself" and stands for Skeat's "yeten his fylle"
("eaten his fill," which involves a doubtful past participle form, but which
reflects the widely attested reading "eten his fille").
8 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Loked on vs wiJ loue and leet his sone dye
Mekely for oure mysdedes to amenden vs alle."
Here we have one of those explosions of meaning that make Langland
so fascinating and difficult a writer. If we follow the rapid movement
of his thought with care, we shall find that he starts out from and re-
turns to the idea of truth as a natural knowledge of morality. By it
we are taught to love God and dread sin (143-45) and to know the
moral law by which our misdeeds are judged (cf. 161-62). But we
are also given a larger view which transforms the commonplace into
mystery. Somehow our knowledge of the moral law implies the cen-
tral events of redemptive history. Truth, used here in both the tran-
scendent and immanent senses, teaches us the moral law which is
basically a law of love, as Jesus told the scribes (Mark 12:29-31).
But returning to the text Deus caritas, we see that love is God and
hence is truth. The consciousness of God as love inevitably implies
the Incarnation, which Langland depicts in a burst of philosophic
and scriptural imagery.5 When we are told that "alle [God's or
Truth's] werkes he wrou3te with loue as hym liste," we recall the
Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God through Whom all
things were made (John 1:3). God was so heavy with this "triacle of
heuene" that it, or He, fell to the earth and took earth unto Himself
(or alloyed Himself with it, in Langland's striking image). In the
midst of this the moral law is introduced once again in such a way as
to stress Truth's transcendent aspect. Truth taught this to Moses, that
love is the dearest thing and most like to heaven. Here, as later in the
poem (B.XVII.1-16), the Old Testament episode that should be
uppermost in our mind is the most obvious one, the giving of the Ten
So the concept of truth is given a new complication. Not only is it
transcendent and immanent, God Himself and the inner principle of
man's moral actions; it is also cognitive and affective at the same
time. Natural knowledge, "kynde knowyng," actually implies love.
Furthermore, the process by which the truth we know in our hearts
5. See P. M. Kean, "Langland and the Incarnation," Review of English
Studies 16 (1965): 349-63, for an account of the scriptural and philosophical
backgrounds of these lines. Another such account is in Ben H. Smith, Jr.,
Traditional Imagery of Charity in Piers Plowman (The Hague: Mouton, 1966),
pp. 21-40, marred slightly by a misreading of the syntax of lines 148-49 (p.
The Dialectic of Truth 9
emerges in the world as good works actually seems to reproduce the
process by which heaven's Truth, heavy with Love, descended to alloy
itself with earth. This is the hard lesson of Lady Holy Church. The
dreamer's failure fully to grasp the link of knowing to loving and of
both to the Incarnate Christ eventually leads to his anti-intellectualism
in Passus XI.
A subsequent passage, Piers's directions for finding Truth, builds
directly on Lady Holy Church's formulations. The lowly plowman,
in his first appearance, offers the well-meaning but confused folk of
the field the directions that were given him by "Conscience and kynde
wit" (B.V.539). They involve a long "signpost allegory"6 of the
moral law, leading to the "court" of Truth, surrounded by a "moot
.of mercy," and supported by pillars of Penance, prayers, and
alms-deeds. The "gateward" is Grace, with his man "amende-yow":
"Biddeb amende-yow meke hym til his master ones
To wayuen vp Pe wiket Pat be woman shette
Tho Adam and Eue eten apples vnrosted:
Per Euam cunctis clausa est et per Mariam virginem iterum
For he hab be keye and be cliket bou3 Pe kyng slepe.
And if grace graunte Pee to go in in bis wise
Thow shalt see in biselue true sitte in Pyn herte
In a cheyne of charite as Pow a child were,
To suffren hym and segge no3t ayein bi sires wille"
Elizabeth Salter calls attention, quite rightly, to the abrupt shift of
perspective in the last four lines. Though she gives the lines a mysti-
cal interpretation which seems to me mistaken, she does make the
valuable observation that they clearly anticipate the Vita de Dobet:
"As confirmation of what he is learning about divine love and truth,
[Will] is allowed to witness the Crucifixion and the Harrowing of
Hell; the gates are indeed opened to him, by grace, as he sees Truth
bound by charity, Christ willingly sacrificed in love, so that he may
gain entry to man's heart."7 Here, as in the description of Truth as a
6. The phrase is John Lawlor's, in Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism
(New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), pp. 35, 56.
7. Elizabeth Zeeman (Salter), "Piers Plowman and the Pilgrimage to
Truth," Essays and Studies, n.s., 11 (1958):1-16. The article appeared under
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
"kynde knowyng," the mystery of the Incarnation seems to be im-
plied in some immediate way by our good works. We are now given
a little more of the doctrinal basis of this implication with the men-
tion of the sacrament of Penance and Grace. With the Incarnation
and Redemption, Christ brought back to human nature the grace
which transforms our natural good works into supernatural acts.
Without this grace man's good works have only earthly meaning. With
it they gain entry into heaven, for Grace "hapb e keye and Pe cliket."
The channels of this grace to men are the sacraments, and by receiv-
ing them men participate in the Incarnation, which is thus an historical
fact and a continuing presence in history. Because of the Incarnation
and its consequent grace, truth has the double meaning we have seen
in the speeches of Lady Holy Church and Piers.
The double aspect of truth, as the goal and the impetus toward the
goal, lies behind other psychological descriptions in the poem which
do not make use of the term itself. In Passus IX, the personification
Wit gives a roundabout answer to the dreamer's question about where
Do-well, Do-bet, and Do-best live:
"Sire Dowel dwelleb," quod Wit, "no3t a day hennes
In a Castel Pat kynde made of four kynnes Pynges.
Of erbe and Eyr it is maad, medled togideres,
Wip wynd and wib water wittily enioyned.
Kynde hap closed Perlnne, craftily wipalle,
A lemman Pat he loueb lik to hymselue.
Anima she hatte; to hir hap enuye
A proud prikere of Fraunce, Princeps huius mundi,
And wolde wynne hire awey wip wiles if he my3te.
Ac kynde knoweb bis wel and kepeb hire be bettre,
And hap doon hire wip sire dowel, duc of bise Marches.
Ac Pe Constable of be Castel Pat kepeb hem alle
Is a wis kny3t wipalle, sire Inwit he hatte,
And hap fyue faire sones bi his first wyue:
Professor Salter's former name. I am referring to a reprint in Edward Vasta,
ed., Middle English Survey (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1965), p. 206.
The Dialectic of Truth
Sire Se-wel, and Sey-wel, and here-wel be hende,
Sire werch-wel-wip-pyn-hand, a wi3t man of strengpe,
And sire Godefray Go-wel, grete lordes alle.
Thise sixe ben set to saue Pis lady anima
Til kynde come or sende and kepe hire hymselue."
I have omitted the definitions of Do-bet and Do-best, since my main
interest at this point is in the Castle and in the Constable Inwit. The
Castle is obviously man, and if there could be any doubt on that
score we are told a little later that it is called "caro" which is "As
much to mene as man wil a Soule" (B.IX.50-51).
There has been some disagreement as to the identity of Inwit. Greta
Hort and Randolph Quirk agree that it cannot mean "conscience."
Quirk, in a survey of external philological evidence, found that this
sense, despite its famous occurrence in the Ayenbite of Inwyt, was
comparatively rare. Internal evidence is against it, too; as Quirk
points out, the presence of a separate character named Conscience
makes it an unlikely redundancy.8 Miss Hort has postulated, instead,
that Inwit is the scholastic sensus communis which integrates the data
of the separate external senses to form a composite sense image.9 This
is suggested by Inwit's five sons who work under him to protect Lady
Anima, although one of these, "sire Godefray Go-wel," is not really
a sense. Quirk, on the other hand, suggests that "inwit is 'intellect,'
the agens aspect of intellectus in Thomist terms, and since the in-
tellect is concerned with the apprehension of truth, it is therefore con-
8. Randolph Quirk, "Langland's Use of Kind Wit and Inwit," Journal of
English and Germanic Philology 52 (1953):187-88. Skeat glosses inwit as
"conscience" (Parallel Texts, 2:139). Willi Erzgrdiber, in William Langlands
Piers Plowman: Eine Interpretation des C-Textes (Heidelberg: Carl Winter,
1957), p. 118, agrees essentially with Skeat, though claiming we should take
"conscience" in a broader sense which would include the general normative
faculty of synderesis. Elizabeth Kirk, in The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 108, identifies Inwit as "con-
science and consciousness."
9. Hort, pp. 96-97. The difficulty over "sire Godefray Go-wel" may be ob-
viated by the suggestion of Joseph S. Wittig, in "'Piers Plowman' B, Passus
IX-XII: Elements in the Design of the Inward Journey," Traditio 28 (1972):
217, that "the five sons are not simply the five senses, but the sensual powers
of man considered precisely as ordered to higher ends while justly supplying
the needs of man." Wittig cites as a probable source of Langland's whole
image of the Castle of Caro the Liber de spirit et anima, in J.-P. Migne,
Patrologiae Cursus Completus .Series Latina (Paris: 1844-65, hereafter
PL), vol. 40, cols. 807-8.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
cerned with the distinction between true and false, good and evil;
hence its functions can come near to, and be confused with, those of
Quirk's suggestion seems to be more plausible because of the ex-
ternal evidence he adduces and because of the precise role that Lang-
land gives to Inwit. First of all, the sons of Inwit all have a positive
moral value implied in their names: See-well and Say-well and so on.
The sensus communis is nondeliberative and amoral. Furthermore,
Inwit guards and serves Anima, and, according to the dominant scho-
lastic epistemology, the sensus communis cannot have any direct re-
lationship with Anima, the immaterial soul."1 The transition from
sensitive and particular knowledge to intellectual cognition is made
by the "active intellect"-or "the agens aspect of intellectus"-which
"illumines" the phantasm, abstracts from it the "intelligible species,"
and impresses this on the passive intellect.12 The mediating role of
Inwit conforms more readily with this account than with any account
of the sensus communis, whose operations Langland omits or silently
When Saint Thomas described part of the function of the active in-
tellect as an "illumination" of the phantasm, he was using a loaded
word.14 Previous Christian thinkers had used the word to denote a
special act of God which completes man's cognition. In other words,
they placed all or part of the operations of the active intellect di-
rectly into the hands of God. Saint Augustine stands at the head of this
tradition of "divine illumination," though his discussion was not
10. Quirk, p. 187.
11. According to Saint Thomas and his followers, the rational and spiritual
soul cannot be affected directly by a material thing or by the phantasm formed
by the senses, including the sensus communis. Even the opponent of this doc-
trine, Duns Scotus, who argued thab the rational soul could directly intuit
sensible particulars, did not put the sensus communis in the intermediating
position occupied by Sir Inwit. See Frederick Copleston, A History of Philos-
ophy, 7 vols. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1957), 2:388-97, 487-99.
12. Ibid., pp. 389-90. I am following Copleston's account very closely.
13. Langland's whole allegory compares rather closely with that of "Sawles
Warde," the twelfth-century prose work based on Hugh of St. Victor's De
Anima. There "Wit" (who may also be called "Inwit," depending on the read-
ing of a difficult line) is the "huse-lauerd" of the house of man, controlling
his foolish wife "Wil", and having as his exterior servants the five senses. There
could be no question here of making this character a personification of con-
science or the sensus communis. For the text, see J. A. W. Bennett and G. V.
Smithers, eds., Early Middle English Verse and Prose (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1966), pp. 246-61, and cf. notes on pp. 418-19.
14. See Summa Theologiae 1.85.1, ad 4.
The Dialectic of Truth
couched in Aristotelian terms, and he was not interested in construct-
ing a systemic epistemology. We can only infer the rough outline of
such a system from remarks directed toward other ends, usually apolo-
getic or controversial. Thus, in rejecting Platonic and Pythagorean
theories of reminiscence, he proposes instead that the intellect per-
ceives necessary truths such as those of geometry "by a sort of in-
corporeal light of an unique kind; just as the carnal eye sees the
things that surround it in this corporeal light, being made receptive
and adapted to this light."15 The source of this light is God, and the
perception of necessary truths is used elsewhere as evidence of His
existence: "For both the earth and light are visible; but the earth
cannot be seen unless illumined by the light. So, too, those things
taught in the sciences, which everyone knows and concedes to be per-
fectly true without a doubt, cannot be known, we must suppose, un-
less they are illumined by some sort of sun of their own."16 And this
sun is God.
Saint Augustine's reflections on the process of knowing led him to
a formulation of man's mind as the image of God in the Trinity, and
this idea exercised a profound influence on later thinkers. God's triune
image could be seen in the memory, intellect, and will, or in the self-
consciousness by which "we are, and we know that we are, and we
love that being and knowledge."17 This last suggests passages we have
discussed in Langland in the way it makes knowledge imply love.
Saint Augustine's greatest follower in the development of the the-
ory of divine illumination was Saint Bonaventure. For him the ac-
tivities of abstraction or "judgment"18 were a persuasive proof of
God's existence, so that every act of knowledge was charged with
15. ". sed potius credendum est mentis intellectuals ita conditam esse
naturam, ut rebus intelligilibus natural ordine, disponente Conditore, subjuncta
sic ista videat in quadam luce sui generis incorporea, quemadmodum oculus
carnis videt quae in hac corporea luce circumadjacent, cujus lucis capax eique
congruens est creatus." De Trinitate 12.15.24, in PL 42:1011.
16. "Nam et terra visibilis, et lux: sed terra, nisi luce illustrate, videri non
potest. Ergo et illa quae in disciplinis traduntur, quae quisquis intelligit, veris-
sima esse nulla dubitatione concedit, credendum est ea non posse intelligi, nisi
ab alio quasi suo sole illustrentur." Soliloquia 1.8.15, in PL 32:877.
17. ". imagine Dei, hoc est summae illius Trinitatis, agnoscimus ..
Nam et sumus, et nos esse novimus, et id esse ac nosse diligimus." De civitate
Dei 11.26, in PL 41:339; cf. ibid. 11.28, in PL 41:342, and De Trinitate
9.12.18, in PL 42:972.
18. Etienne Gilson notes that Bonaventure "uses indifferently in the same
sense the Aristotelian expression abstrahere and the Augustinian judicare," and
that this complicates his notion of abstraction; see The Philosophy of Saint
Bonaventure (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1938), p. 399.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
supernatural significance. Epistemology almost implied mysticism. He
makes an explicit and quite beautiful connection between divine il-
lumination and the soul's image of the Trinity in a commentary on
the design of the Tabernacle in Exod. 26:35: "As the lampstand
there sheds its light, even so, the light of truth is ever glowing on the
face of our mind; which is to say that the image of the most blessed
Trinity ever brightly shines upon it.""' God is His light, so His illumi-
nation of our minds shows in His reflected image.
Etienne Gilson, in his study of Bonaventure, describes the precise
degree of divine participation involved in the illumination of the in-
tellect: "The corporeal creature, as a mere vestige of God, requires
His cooperation only as creator and conserver; the human soul, an
express resemblance of God, assimilable to Him by a sort of super-
naturalization which transfigures it, requires from God that which
alone, by its divine quality, can make it acceptable to Him; but be-
tween these two is the human soul considered as an image which re-
quires by reason of its status a divine co-operation more intimate than
that of conservation, although less intimate than that of grace. Such
precisely is the part played by divine illumination in relation to
knowledge through the eternal principles. It does not simply sustain
it as a cause, and it does not transfigure it from within as does a grace,
but it moves it from within as a hidden object."20 Thus divine illumi-
nation is a special act of God, though it is less than the act by which
we are brought to mystical contemplation in this life or to the Beatific
Vision in the next. Our intellect and its operations differ from the
movement of the soul to God, but only as an image differs from a
Bonaventure's great contemporary Saint Thomas gave a different
sense to "illumination." His Aristotelianism and his more consistent
exposition of secondary causality involved, as Frederick Copleston
says, "the rejection of the theory of divine illumination or rather the
interpretation of divine illumination as equivalent to the natural light
of the intellect with the ordinary and natural concurrence of God."21
This was consistent with Thomas's formal distinction between philos-
19. Journey of the Mind to God (Itinerarium mentis in Deum) 3.1, in The
Works of Bonaventure, trans. Jose de Vinck, 4 vols. (Paterson, N.J.: St. An-
thony's Guild Press, 1960-), 1:28. Other passages dealing with divine illumina-
tion are Journey of the Mind to God 2.9 and De scientia Christi 4. ad 5, 6, in
Opera Omnia (Quaracchi, 1891), 5:25.
20. Gilson, The Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure, p. 401.
21. Copleston. 2:426.
The Dialectic of Truth
ophy and theology, a distinction which is foreign to the Augustinian
approach, as was the related distinction between the natural and su-
pernatural ends of man. It is true that for Thomas philosophy and the
natural were insufficient in themselves and were completed by theol-
ogy and the supernatural. But even to make them separately intel-
ligible was a fundamental innovation.
We have suggested that Sir Inwit, in his separate but mediating re-
lationship to Lady Anima, seems rather like the active intellect as
described by Saint Thomas. But as we read further we find that this
constable of the castle described by Wit is endowed with a dignity
and authority which seems supernatural, a dignity which would be
granted him by Augustine and Bonaventure:
"Inwit and alle wittes enclosed ben PerInne
For loue of be lady anima Pat lif is ynempned.
Ouer al in mannes body heo walked and wandreb,
Ac in be herte is hir hoom and hir mooste reste.
Ac Inwit is in be heed and to be herte he lokeb,
What anima is leef or loob; he let hire at his will,
For after be grace of god be gretteste is Inwit."
The last line in particular seems quite close to Bonaventure's idea of
God's relation to the intellect, "more intimate than that of conserva-
tion, although less intimate than that of grace." There is an interesting
variation on this in the C-text, which puts more emphasis on the re-
lationship of Inwit's counsel to the counsel of God:
"By loue and leaute, ther-by lyueth Anima;
And Lyf lyueth by Inwitt and lerynge of Kynde.
Inwitt is in the hefd, as Anima in the herte,
And much wo worth hym that Inwitt mys-speyneth.
For that is godes owen good, hus grace and hus tresoure,
That meny lede leeseth thorw lykerouse drynke."
Here the usual relationship between B and C is reversed. Normally
B makes the sweeping statements and takes the liberties that metaphor
allows; then C makes the distinctions and qualifications that discur-
sive statements of doctrine demand. But in this passage B is precise
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
and circumspect, placing Inwit "after Je grace of god," while C is
daring and says that Inwit is God's grace, pushing illumination in the
direction of deification.
Just preceding this passage in B there is an account of man's crea-
tion in God's image, a subject as closely relevant to the illumination of
the intellect for Langland as it is for the theologians of the Augus-
tinian tradition. Wit has told the dreamer, in lines already quoted,
that the five sons of Inwit have been set to protect Anima "Tyl kynde
come or sende and kepe hire hymselve." The dreamer asks who Kind
is, and receives this answer:
"Kynde," quod he, "is creator of alle kynnes beestes,
Fader and formour, be first of alle Pynges.
And Pat is be grete god Pat gynnyng hadde neuere,
Lord of lif and of li3t, of lisse and of peyne.
Aungeles and alle Pyng arn at his will
Ac man is hym most lik of marc and of shape.
For Poru3 be word Pat he warp woxen forp beestes,
And al at his wil was wrou3t wip a speche,
Dixit & fact sunt,
Saue man Pat he made ymage to himself,
And Eue of his ryb bon wipouten any mene.
For he was synguler himself and seide faciamus
As who seip, 'moore moot herto Pan my word oone;
My my3t moot helpe forb wib my speche.'
Right as a lord sholde make lettres; if hym lakked parchemyn,
Thou3 he wiste to write neuer so wel, and he hadde a penne,
The lettre, for al be lordshipe, I leue, were neuere ymaked.
And so it semeb by hym Pere he seide in be bible
Faciamus hominem ad imagine nostram;
He most werche wib his word and his wit shewe.
And in Pis manere was man maad Poru3 my3t of god almy3ty,
Wip his word and werkmanshipe and wib lif to last.
And Pus god gaf hym a goost of be godhede of heuene
And of his grete grace granted hym blisse,
Lif bat ay shal last, and al his lynage after."22
22. The text is corrupt in all MSS. Donaldson and Kane's text differs
notably from Skeat's (B.IX.26-47), and the reader may wish to compare the
two. The influence of Christian exemplarism, discussed here, is clear in both.
The Dialectic of Truth
The last sixteen lines were omitted in the C-text, and the reader might
feel inclined to thank Langland for this revision. The extended con-
ceit is obscure, and seems internally inconsistent. The lines are worth
our attention, though, because they attempt to appropriate a peculiar
refinement in the doctrine of divine illumination.
Wit makes a distinction between the creation of man and that of
other creatures. All others were made with a speech, "Dixit & facta
sunt," the speech being, of course, "Fiat ----," which follows
"Dixit" in the Vulgate Genesis. Man's creation was different because
then God said "faciamus."23 This different usage is somehow ex-
plained by the analogy of a lord trying to write without a parchment.
Man, or something involved exclusively in man's creation, is to God
as the paper is to that lord. He or it makes God's wit show, as a paper
makes the lord's thought visible, as in an order or a plan. All this is
somehow bound up with the idea that man was made in the image of
One tradition which may lurk in the obscurities of this passage is
the Christian version of Platonic exemplarism. The tradition was
popularized by Augustine, but many more proximate sources can be
adduced. It takes as its point of departure fiat, factum est, and fecit-
nearly the same words as those Langland plays on here-and finds
in them three distinct phases in the process of Creation. Hugh of
Saint Victor gives a good summary of the theory:
Just as a man, when he has conceived something in his mind,
draws an example of it externally, so that what was known only
to him may be seen plainly by others, and afterwards, to make
it still more evident, explains in words how the thing drawn as
an example matches his idea of it; so, too, God, wishing to show
his invisible Wisdom, drew its example in the mind of the
rational creature [i.e., in the minds of angels], and next, by
making the corporeal creature, showed the rational creature an
23. One popular explanation, as I note below, was that God used the plural
to refer to His triune aspect. Skeat apparently follows the tradition, finding in
the pen and parchment metaphors for the Son and Holy Ghost. This follows
in part from his reading of lines 38-39: "Ri3te as a lorde sholde make lettres
and hym lakked parchemyn,/Though he couth write neuere so wel 3if he had
no penne." An objection to the Trinity reference is that we cannot tell which
of the two Persons is pen and which is parchment. There is no clear differen-
tiation of function as there usually is in discussions of the Trinity. Instead the
common function of pen and parchment, to make thought visible, is stressed
here. See Parallel Texts, 2:140.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
external example of what it itself contained within. Thus, the
rational creature was made in first place and in likeness of the
divine Idea, with nothing mediating between them. The
corporeal creature, however, was made in the likeness of the
divine Idea through the mediation of the rational creature.
For this reason, the book of Genesis, speaking of the angels
under the appellation "light," says: "God said: Let there be
light. And the light came to be." Concerning all the other works
of God, however, it says: "God said: Let it be. And it was
so"-and then it adds, "And God made it." For the angelic
nature first existed in the divine Idea as a plan, and then
afterwards it began to subsist in itself through creation. The
other creatures, however, first existed in the Idea of God; next,
they were made in the knowledge of the angels; and finally they
began to subsist in themselves. When, therefore, Genesis says,
"God said: Let it be," [Dixit: fiat] this refers to the divine Mind.
And when it says, "And it was so," factumm est] this refers to
the angelic intellect. And when it says, "And God made it,"
[fecit] it refers to the actuality of things.24
What subsists in the minds of the angels is the intelligible species or
"kind" of each corporeal creature. Hence, the source of these intel-
ligible species is the "Kind" par excellence. Langland's choice of this
name for God in Wit's speech is perhaps one indication of his debt
The place given by Hugh to angels in the original process of crea-
tion was assigned by others to man in the comprehension of creation.
We can see here the same tendency of thought which pushed the ac-
tive intellect in the direction of mystical contemplation. Saint Bona-
venture tells us that "in the state of innocence, when the image had
not yet been distorted," or-preserving the common distinction-
24. Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon, trans. Jerome Taylor (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 156. The Latin text is in Hugonis
de Sancto Victore Didascalicon De Studio Legendi: A Critical Text, ed. Brother
Charles Henry Buttimer, M.A. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press,
1939), pp. 134-35. This passage appears as an introduction to the treatise in a
number of MSS, but it is clear that this was not Hugh's placement. Where, or
whether, he would have placed it in the Didascalicon is uncertain. See Buttimer,
pp. xvi-xvii, and Taylor, p. 152. On the doctrine, cf. Augustine De Genesi
ad Litteram 2.6-8, 4.29, 31, in PL 34:267-70, 315, 316; De civitate Dei 11.9,
in PL 41:323-25.
The Dialectic of Truth
when the likeness had not lost its pristine clarity, "but was conformed
to God through grace, the book of creation sufficed to enable man to
perceive the light of divine Wisdom. He was then so wise that, seeing
all things in themselves [fecit], he also saw them in their proper genus
factumm est] as well as in God's creating Art [Dixit: fiat]. For this
accords with the triple manner in which creatures exist: in matter,
that is, in their own nature; in the created intellect, and in the eternal
Art."25 Before original sin, then, man was not only an image and
likeness of God; he was, in his act of knowledge, an imitation of the
whole process of creation, played backwards, as it were. As he looked
forward and outward on the corporeal world, his mind, illuminated
by God, derived the proper genus of what he saw, just as the angels
did, and then saw through the genus the Eternal Art which is iden-
tical with God Himself. Furthermore, the drama of creation is ex-
pressed with particular intensity in man because he is composed of
its second and third terms, being both rational and corporeal. When
sin darkens our likeness to God, we lose this ability to perceive the
source of the world and of the operations by which we know it. But
as we free ourselves from sin and grow in grace, the light from be-
hind grows and transforms the seeing and doing that lie before us.
Then, in the most profound sense, we see well, say well, hear well,
work well with our hands, and go well.
This seems to be part of what lies behind Langland's conceit, but
his use of faciamus indicates a variation. The lines tell us that when
God said faciamus he was indicating that creating man called for
some extraordinary effort. A simple word to the mediating angelic
agent (Dixit: fiat ) was enough for beasts, but man must be
made "wipouten any mene." Faciamus, the first person plural, occurs
in the Vulgate only at the creation of man and may simply reproduce
an inconsistency in the Hebrew where God is sometimes given a sin-
gular title, Yahweh, and sometimes the plural Elohim.26 Latin com-
25. The Breviloquium 2.12.4, in The Works of Bonaventure, 2:105. The
bracketed words represent what I hope is a pardonable subterfuge. In the sen-
tence that follows this passage, Bonaventure orders the three verb forms this
way: fiat, divine Idea or Eternal Art; fecit, rational creature; factus est, cor-
poreal creature. This has the same significance as Hugh's formula, but it is in
a different order. I felt my exposition was complicated enough without making
this adjustment in the course of it. Langland follows Hugh's order.
26. See the note to Gen. 1:26 in The Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, N.Y.:
Doubleday, 1966), where a consultation with angels or other heavenly powers
is suggested as an alternative interpretation.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
mentators misunderstood this and gave various explanations for the
plural verb, among the most popular being that God referred to Him-
self in his triune aspect when engaged in the creation of the one
earthly creature who would bear his triune image.27 If Langland knew
this explanation, he chose not to use it. The plural subject of faciamus
for him is God's "my3t" and "speche," and this odd reading seems to
be his own.
This apparently original reading of the Latin illustrates a tradi-
tional doctrine also found in Dante's Paradiso, and we might ap-
proach Langland's exposition by way of Dante's. In Canto VII Bea-
trice explains why God became man to redeem fallen humanity. Her
argument is based mainly on Saint Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, and in
the course of it she explains that man, before original sin, was im-
mortal, and that this immortality was the result of the manner of his
Cio che da lei sanza mezzo distilla
non ha poi fine, perch non si move
la sua imprenta quand'ella sigilla.
Cio che da essa sanza mezzo piove
libero e tutto, perched non soggiace
alla virtute delle cose nove.
[Whatever distills from It (the Divine Goodness) without
intermediary has no end afterward because Its imprint is not
removed once it is stamped in. Whatever rains down from this
without intermediary is wholly free, because it is not subject
to the power of the new things (i.e., the stars).]
Dante finds this understandable as regards the soul, but what of the
body? Is it not made of corporeal elements which common experi-
ence tells us must pass away? Beatrice concedes that these elements
are corruptible because subject to the secondary causality of the stars,
but goes on to suggest, rather elliptically, the reason why man, body
and soul, is a special case:
27. Cf. Augustine Confessions 13.22, in PL 32:858-59; De Genesi ad Lit-
teram 3.19.29, in PL 34:291-92.
28. Paradise, a cura di Natalino Sapegno (Firenze: "La Nuova Italia" Edi-
The Dialectic of Truth
ma vostra vita sanza mezzo spira
la somma beninanza, e la innamora
di se, si che poi sempre la disira.
E quinci puoi argomentare ancora
vostra resurrezion, se tu ripensi
come l'umana care fessi allora
che li primi parent intrambo fensi.
[But the Supreme Goodness breathes forth your life without
intermediary, and enamors it of Itself so that the soul desires It
forever after. And hence you can infer now your own
resurrection, if you consider how the human flesh was made
when the first parents were both formed.]
The mode of the fleshly creation of Adam and Eve is that recounted
in Genesis 2:7: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the
ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man be-
came a living being." His word alone was not enough. He put His
hand to the task of shaping the dust. 'My my3t moot helpe for]
wik my speche' He most werche wik his word and his wit
shewe." For Langland, as for Dante, the conjunction of God's "word"
with His "werkmanshipe" meant that man was endowed "wi, lif to
laste" Both poets link man's immortality to his being mostt lik"
God "of marc and of shape," and to his being made "wipouten any
Let us return to that image of the pen and parchment. It seems
clearly related to Hugh of Saint Victor's description of mediate crea-
tion through the angels, which he compares to a man drawing out a
plan or blueprint of his conception, so as to render it visible to others.
29. Saint Thomas Aquinas makes substantially the same point in Summa
Theologiae 1.91.2, responded. He links this with the general resurrection of
the body in 1.91.2, ad 1. The doctrine is also found in Saint Ambrose Hexae-
meron 6.7. 40-43 (PL 14:272-74), where the creation of men without the
angels' help is connected with man's status as the image of God; and in
Augustine De Genesi ad Litteram 9.15.26 (PL 34:403-4), where emphasis is
placed on God's direct creation of Eve as well as Adam. Joseph Wittig points
out that the involvement of both God's "word" and "werkemanschip" in man's
creation suggests man's duty both to know and to love (and thus to practice)
God's law. He cites the parallel drawn in the anonymous treatise De Spiritu et
Anima (PL 40:805), between God's creative sermo and opera and the human
obligation to intelligere and diligere ("Inward Journey," p. 223).
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
God's urge to show what is in His mind is expressed more strikingly
in Langland with the quick, deft sketch of a frustrated lord whose
literacy, however advanced and hard won, is rendered useless by the
want of a parchment. We seem to hear in Langland's tone the mixture
of sympathy and satisfaction with which a commoner might view the
noble's share in the common curse of absentmindedness: "The lettre,
for al pe lordshipe, I leue, were neuere ymaked." When God creates
man by means of His "word and werkmanshipe," one surprising re-
sult is the resolution of this problem. In making man He makes "his
wit shewe." The simile of the parchment which suggests God's rela-
tionship to angels in Hugh of Saint Victor describes His relationship
to men in Langland. Like Saint Bonaventure, Langland seems to put
men in a position analogous to that of the angels, between material
creation and the Creator, but he does so in a way peculiarly his own.
In Bonaventure we see God's beneficent light flooding the grateful
human mind after its arduous climb from the cognition of sensible
particulars to their source in the divine Idea. In Langland, we see God
Himself, at first frustrated, then rejoicing in a task of unaccustomed
difficulty, gratefully giving eternal life to His finest work, the image
of Himself in whom at last His wit is rendered visible.
As I noted before, Langland drops this passage in the C-text. What-
ever his motives, he was consistent enough to drop another passage
which seems to share the theme of God's delight in His last creation.
Some fifty lines after the passage we have discussed, Wit condemns
"spille speche bat spire is of grace
And goddes gleman and a game of heuene.
Wolde neuere be feipful fader his fiPele were vntempred
Ne his gleman a gedelyng, a goere to tauernes."
The idea of speech as God's fiddle is quite close to the metaphor of
the pen and parchment. In both cases the divine Idea is made public
and sensible-God makes "his wit shewe"-and in both cases God
can almost be said to be fulfilling himself in man. So it follows that
speech is a "spyre of grace" just as Inwit is most precious "after the
grace of god," and the misuse of either is something like a sacrilege.
The term "spyre of grace" actually sounds like a description of a
sacrament. There is, in addition to this suggestion of the sacramental,
The Dialectic of Truth
a pleasing sense of play in the description of speech as "goddes
gleman and a game of heuene," as if God felt an exuberance in His
creativity, and man's highest vocation was to be its joyous, singing
expression. This imagery, the omission of which is a sad loss in the
C-text, is closely related to the minstrel imagery which, as Donaldson
has shown, Langland reduced in each revision lest he be misunder-
stood in a world where the more typical minstrel was "a gedelyng, a
goere to tauernes."30
The sense of God's self-fulfillment in man, and the mixing of the
sacramental and the intellectual in a common sense of play are basic
and recurring elements in Langland. To a great extent they create
that special tone of voice which sustains us through so much that is
strange and bewildering in his poem and which invests its most vi-
sionary moments with such surprisingly antic humor. From this van-
tage point let us look backward and forward to just two of the
passages that bring up these themes in somewhat similar tones. Lady
Holy Church, in her instructions to Will, spoke of the delight of
"Loue," or God the Son, in His newfound agility-"portatif and
persaunt as Pe point of a nedle"-after He had taken on man's flesh
and blood. And shortly after Wit's speech Dame Study will lament
the fallen state of minstrelsy (B.X.39ff.), which seems related to the
fallen state of learning in some way so obvious to her that she need
not explain it. Once again, Langland seems to have lost the connec-
tion in his own mind when he did the C revision, and so he drops
most of this.
In one other change, though, the C-text gives a valuable reminder
of how Wit's speech relates to what has gone before. Just after the
passage in which Inwit is likened to the grace of God, in B Wit con-
demns those who misrule Inwit and so serve the devil, contrasting
them with "alle Pat lyuen good lif" and "are lik to god almy3ty"
(B.IX.65). Langland's restatement of this in C is indirect and allu-
sive: "Every man that hath Ynwitt and hus hele bothe, / Hath tresour
ynow in treuthe to fynde with hym-selue" (C.XI.180-81). This re-
turn to the language in which Lady Holy Church extolled truth as
the best treasure places Inwit very nicely in the context of the whole
poem. It provides another instance of how God is both the goal and
the impetus toward the goal. In its search for God the active intellect
30. C-Text, pp. 136-55; he cites the same passage on p. 148. On speech as a
duty of man by which he communicates knowledge gained from God, see
Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae 2-2.77, ad 1.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
perceives His image in the very act of searching. Truth is at once
transcendent and immanent, and man, in tracing its locus, becomes "a
god by Je gospel, a ground and o lofte." Of course, this account is
partial, coming as it does from Wit, who is the intelligence considered
as a whole. The only misruling of Inwit he can conceive is a derange-
ment through too much food or drink. It remains for Study, his domi-
neering wife, to show how the intellect can be abused through its
choice of objects and motives even when it is working with full clarity
and strength. Inwit is not "tresour ynow in treuthe," but it is a neces-
sary, divinely endowed component in the image and likeness of God.
One more psychological passage which exploits the double aspect of
truth has been treated extensively and well by Greta Hort and Pro-
fessor Donaldson, and my own remarks on it derive much from
theirs.31 This is the passage in Passus XVI which involves the Tree of
Charity and the personification Liberum-Arbitrium. In B this is a
dream within a dream, which interrupts the speech of Anima and has
Piers Plowman for its central expositor. In the C-text (beginning at
C.XVII.158) the passage is a continuation of the Haukyn episode
and has for its central expositor Liberum-Arbitrium, who replaces
both Anima and Piers. The scene is extremely complex, and it could
be argued that it is not under the complete control of its author. I do
not intend to treat it exhaustively here; one particularly important
element, the role of Piers in the B-text, I will reserve for later dis-
cussion. A point which is relevant to the previous discussions of
truth, and Inwit, though, is the intersection of the divine and human
spheres of operation in the faculty of free will, an intersection for
which Donaldson suggested a precedent in Bernard of Clairvaux and
In the B-text, the dreamer asks "what charite is to mene" (B.XVI.
3). Anima explains that it is the fruit of a tree called Patience which
grows "Amyddes mannes body" (B.XVI.14) where it is kept by
Liberum-Arbitrium, a tenant under Piers the Plowman. When the
dreamer hears that name he swoons into a deeper dream where he
stands before the Tree of Charity and has for his instructor Piers
himself. The tree is supported by three props taken from another tree
called Trinity, lest the Tree of Charity be blown by the three winds of
31. Hort, pp. 113-15; Donaldson, C-Text, pp. 180-96.
The Dialectic of Truth
the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Piers explains, when the wind
of the world threatens the tree, "Thanne with be first pil I palle hym
doun, potencia dei patris." When the wind of the flesh comes,
"Thanne sette I to be secounde pil, sapiencia dei patris, / That is Je
passion and be power of oure prince Iesu" (B.XVI.30, 36-37). But
when the devil comes, the expected recourse to the Holy Ghost is
delayed and stated in the most roundabout way:
"Ac liberum arbitrium letter hym som tyme,
That is lieutenant to loken it wel bi leue of myselue:
Videatis qui peccat in spiritum sanctum, numquam remittetur
& c; Hoc est idem qui peccat per liberum arbitrium non
Ac whan be fend and be flessh forb wipb e world
Manacen bihynde me, my fruyt for to fecche,
Thanne liberum arbitrium lacchep be bridde planke,
And pallet adoun be pouke pureliche Poru3 grace
And help of be holy goost, and Pus haue I Pe maistrie."
There are several variations from the norm here. First, Piers, who is
about to assume the role of Christ's human nature, does not wield
the stick himself as he had done in the first two cases, but delegates
the job to his tenant, a faculty of human nature, Liberum-Arbitrium.
Second, as already noted, the mention of the Person of the Trinity is
delayed, and so the human collaboration is emphasized. Third, the
Holy Ghost does not have a Latin title as the Father and the Son do;
instead, the Latin name of the human faculty is placed in a position
exactly parallel to "potencia dei patris" and "sapiencia dei patris."
Finally, there is a Latin interpolation which sets up an odd equation
between the sin against the Holy Ghost and a sin through free will.
The effect of all this is to make Liberum-Arbitrium and the Holy
Ghost work in a unison which makes them almost indistinguishable.
Miss Hort calls our attention to some lines near the end of Passus
XVI, where Abraham, in the role of Faith, describes the Trinity:
"So is be fader forb with be sone and fre will of bope,
Spiritus procedens a patre & filio & c,
Which is be holy goost of alle, and alle is but o god."
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Here the Holy Ghost is the free will of God, and so the relationship
of God and man is once again that of exemplar and image. As Miss
Hort says, "The difficulty of reconciling the two conceptions is much
the same difficulty as we met at the very beginning, where Truth was
used to signify two different aspects of the same thing." Free will is
raised to the highest importance among man's rational faculties, so
that it is virtually "the Holy Ghost in man, helped by the Holy Ghost
outside man, which finally leads man to salvation."32
In the C-text the importance of Liberum-Arbitrium is further em-
phasized by having him replace Piers entirely. The second tree called
Trinity is eliminated, and the Tree of Charity is renamed Ymago
Dei.33 The awkward inconsistency in the defense against the third of
the "wicked winds" is removed:
Thenne fondeth the Feende my frut to destruye,
Thenne palle ich a-downe the pouke with the thridde shoryere,
The which is Spiritus-sanctus and soth-fast byleyue,
And that is grace of the Holy Gost; and thus gat ich the mastrye.
Since Piers is no longer present to delegate part of his authority to
his tenant and keep part himself, Liberum-Arbitrium has a remark-
able extension of power. This faculty now commands the aid of all
three Persons of the Trinity, and he undergoes the translation that B
reserved for Piers as the entire human nature of Christ. This occurs
in B when the devil carries off the patriarchs and prophets who fall
from the tree:
And Piers for pure tene Pat a pil he lau3te;
He hitte after hym, happe how it my3te,
Filius by be fader will and frenesse of spirits sancti,
To go robbe Pat Rageman and reue the fruyt fro hym.
32. Religious Thought, p. 115.
33. Smith, in Traditional Imagery, p. 60, suggests that Ymago Dei, called
an ympe (C.XIX.6), is not synonymous with the "tre Trewe loue" (C.
XIX.9) as Skeat suggests (Parallel Texts, 2:235), but is a divine shoot grafted
onto the tree of man. This is difficult syntactically, but the idea of grafting as
a symbol for the intersection of the divine and the human has traditional sup-
The Dialectic of Truth
The narrative then shifts suddenly to an account of the Annunciation,
the Incarnation, and the rest of the life of Christ. In C the idea of the
Holy Ghost as the free will of God is taken from its place near the
end of the Passus and brought forward to accomplish the literal deifi-
cation of Liberum-Arbitrium:
Thenne meuede hym mod in maiestate dei,
That Libera-Uoluntas-Dei lauhte the myddel shoriere,
And hitte after the fende, happe hou hit myghte.
Filius, by the faders wil, flegh with Spiritus Sanctus,
To ransake that rageman and reue hym hus apples,
That fyrst man deceyuede thorgh frut and false by-heste.
In this emphasis upon will Langland is invoking a tradition dif-
ferent from the cognitive one of "divine illumination," though it is
related. Donaldson, in discussing the relations of B and C in this epi-
sode, suggests that Saint Bernard or one of his followers may be the
doctrinal source. For Bernard the free will is the seat of God's image;
it is also the loving faculty, the seat of charity, which, as Anima told
Will in the B-text, is "a childissh Pyng ... Wipouten fauntelte or
folie a fre liberal will" (B.XV.149-50).34 Donaldson remarks that
the last phrase is "almost a punning translation of liberum ar-
bitrium,"35 and the lines were eliminated when C reassigned Anima's
speech to Liberum-Arbitrium. This change from the cognitive em-
phasis of Lady Holy Church and Wit has as a corollary an explicit
emphasis upon grace in this intersection of the divine and human
spheres of operation.
In shifting from the cognitive to the affective in locating the image
of God, the passage retains some vital links with the earlier passages,
particularly in the curious transformations of the Tree of Charity
itself, which lead up to the transformation of Piers in B and Liberum-
Arbitrium in C. The tree grows "Amyddes mannes body" in a garden
made by God (or, as C.XIX.4 has it, in "a contree, Cor-hominis hit
port. Perhaps an engraftedd tree," like the "ympe-tree" of Sir Orfeo, line 70
(ed. A. J. Bliss [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954]), is what Langland
had in mind.
34. See Saint Bernard De gratia et libero arbitrio 9 (PL 182:1016), a
passage cited by Donaldson, C-Text, p. 189. See, also, Gilson, The Mystical
Theology of Saint Bernard (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940), pp. 45ff.
35. C-Text, p. 193.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
hyhte"). Its root is mercy; its trunk is pity; its leaves are loyal words,
the laws of Holy Church; and its blossoms are obedient speech. Its
name is Patience and its fruit is Charity (B.XVI.4-8), a fulfillment
of the identification of patient poverty and charity which the preced-
ing Passis have developed.36 All this is quite intelligible, if a bit un-
gainly. The tree is the internal source of virtue in the individual man,
and all the virtues are simply different kinds of charity. But a little
later, when the dreamer asks Piers to describe the fruit of the tree, we
are told that it grows in three kinds, each sweeter than the last: matri-
mony, widowhood, and virginity (B.XVI.67-72).7 There is thus a
shift from the individual to the social economy of charity, but both
have the same central symbol, the tree that grows "Amyddes mannes
body." When the dreamer asks to taste an apple from the tree a fur-
ther complication is presented to us. For as Piers shakes the tree, the
devil enters and bears off the fallen apples; and among them are
"Adam and Abraham and Ysaye be prophete, / Sampson and Samuel
and Seint lohan be Baptist" (B.XVI.81-82). There is now a shift
from the social to the historical economy of charity as Will and Piers
collaborate in reenacting Adam's sin, "knocking down an apple in re-
sponse to human curiosity and thus bringing death and the devil into
the world."38 The whole sweep of Old Testament history is com-
pressed to an instant, to the shaking of a tree that grows "Amyddes
mannes body" and is seen in a dream within a dream.39 Once this
widest possible perspective is attained we are ready for the abrupt
bursting forth into the story of the Incarnation and Redemption, which
transforms the individual man, society, and all of history in a single
visitation of grace.
Let us return, briefly, to the speech of Lady Holy Church. There
we saw how our "kynde knowyng" of the moral law implied in some
immediate, logical way the whole history of the Redemption. Truth
teaches us that love is heaven's remedy, and that heaven was so heavy
36. In C.XIX.9 the tree's name is changed to "Trewe-loue."
37. C.XIX.58-104 expands this.
38. Kirk, p. 169. Professor Kirk does not speak of a collaboration of Will
and Piers in reenacting Adam's sin, but this does follow from the fact that the
"human curiosity" in question is Will's and from her own interesting suggestion
that Will and Piers are related somewhat in the manner of the Yeatsian self
and anti-self (p. 76).
39. M. W. Bloomfield, in "Piers Plowman and the Three Grades of Chastity"
(Anglia 76 :245-53), discusses Langland's use of the tree as both "a
schematic and a chronological symbol," and suggests a mixture here of Joachite
historical thought with traditional teachings on chastity, both of which were
embodied in symbolic trees.
The Dialectic of Truth
with it that it fell to earth and took earth to itself in the Incarnation.
Here the equivocation between truth and Truth, love and Love is de-
liberate. When Truth "comsek by myght" in man's heart to become
manifest in good deeds, its movement is one with that by which the
Word was made flesh. This is true because of the presence of grace,
of which Lady Holy Church is custodian. When Piers gives his expo-
sition of the way to Truth through the Ten Commandments, he is
bringing this movement to its conclusion. It ends where it began, in
man's heart where Truth is found "In a cheyne of charite." The In-
carnation happens again, or it still happens in some way that tran-
scends the very history it informs and makes "again" meaningless.
And its setting is at once history and a garden "Amyddes mannes
body" in a country called "Cor-hominis."
In Wit's speech on the Castle of Caro and Sir Inwit, we have seen
how the first events of sacred history, particularly the creation, were
directly related to the divine illumination of the intellect and the
image of God in man's cognition. Langland appropriated some ver-
sion of the exemplarist account of creation whereby the rational in-
tellect of man comprehended and showed forth the divine Idea behind
corporeal creation. The cognitive operations of man implied the
events of sacred history up to but not including the Incarnation, be-
cause that event was a visitation of grace, whereas the divine endow-
ment of the intellect is only greatest "after the grace of god." Thus it
is that Wit's narrative passages all come from the Old Testament. Wit
is witty enough to see beyond himself, though, as his closing defini-
tion of "Dobest" shows us:
"And so come dobest about and bryngep adoun mody,
And Pat is wikked will Pat many werk shendeb,
And dryuep awey dowel Poru3 dedliche synnes."
Wit knows that the ultimate struggle for man's soul is carried out in
the will. When man is saved it will be because of the transformation
of his free will-liberum-arbitrium-by the grace of the Incarnation.
The movement from intellect to will parallels Lady Holy Church's
extension of "kynde knowyng" into loving, and progression of the
Old Testament into the New in Passus XVI.40
40. Smith notes that the tree of Jesse was commonly used in manuscript
illuminations "to join matter traditionally connected with the old dispensation
to matter traditionally connected with the new" (Traditional Imagery, p. 62).
30 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
The episode of the Tree of Charity and Liberum-Arbitrium has
thus been well prepared for. It in turn prepares us for the climax of
the poem, Passus XVIII (C. XXI), in which the central event of
sacred history, the Redemption, is narrated with such easy brilliance
and clarity that we share the poet's confidence that here at last he has
resolved every issue, internal, external, social, and historical, that he
has raised in the poem. What we see fully and explicitly in Passils
XVI-XVIII we have glimpsed fitfully in the earlier psychological
passages where the Incarnation was seen as the ultimate ground and
reward of the good life. Now, at the poem's climax, the narrative it-
self is an adequate symbol of the dreamer's inner peace.
3. The Social Dimension
IN HIS STUDY of the A-text, T. P. Dunning suggests, rather tentatively,
that the king who appears in Passis III and IV "must be taken to
signify not only Kingship in general and the King of England in par-
ticular, but also the individual man, or, more abstractly-and better,
I think-the human will in general."' Nevill Coghill, in a discussion
dealing mainly with the B-text, suggests that the king who is prophe-
sied in some rather obscure eschatological passages later in the poem
"is Christ at His Second Coming."2 Both of these interpretations seem
to me to be mistaken, but both are based on a sound perception of
the strange nature of Langland's king. This problem involves us im-
mediately in Langland's view of society, the field of folk between
heaven and hell which, Langland hoped, could embody, in a cor-
porate way and in time, that image of God which was the fruit of the
Incarnation in the individual soul. Such an ambition, though Christian
in origin, could come in conflict with the Christian vision of the City
of God which perfects the Earthly City only by supplanting it and by
The circumstances of the trial of Meed in Passus III and IV seem
at first to demand the sort of internalizing reading that Father Dun-
1. A-Text, p. 101.
2. "The Pardon of Piers Plowman," Proceedings of the British Academy 30
(1944):244. The passages he discusses are B.VIII.100-110 (A.IX.90-100),
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
ning gives them. Here, after all, we have a king, a fully human being,
sharing the stage equally with several personified internal faculties:
The kyng called Conscience and afterward Reson
And recorded Pat Reson hadde ri3tfully schewed,
"I am redy," quod Reson, "to reste wib yow euere;
So Conscience be of you're counsel kepe I no bettre."
"I graunte gladly," quod be kyng, "goddes forbode he failed!
Als long as I lyue lyue we togideres."
There is a problem of perspective here which does not arise in situa-
tions where the dreamer speaks with Conscience or Wit or any other
of the personified faculties There his interlocutor is readily intelli-
gible as a projection of himself, and the dialogue is actually a self-
examination. Even in the more complex situations where Conscience
addresses a third party while the dreamer looks on, the faculty can
be understood as an individual projection. Thus Conscience puts ques-
tions to the corpulent Master and to Hawkin which are implicitly the
dreamer's own. But in Passfis III and IV the situation is different.
Here the dreamer is not the emanating center of the action as he is
on his later search for Do-well. He is instead an onlooker; if he is on
the stage at all it is as one of the faceless crowd of commoners. Con-
science, Reason, and the King are equidistant from him; and their
forms are present to the dreamer in the same way, with no distinction
made between person and personification. If the reader wants to make
sense of the scene, he is almost forced to internalize the king (as
Father Dunning does) or to externalize the faculties.
Several passages added to A in B give the king an eschatological
significance, and so lend plausibility to Coghill's reading. Conscience,
in refuting Meed, looks forward to a time when Reason will govern
the realms, and when "oon cristene kyng," whose advent will be
heralded by celestial signs, will "kepen vs echone" (B.III.289). When
the king takes Reason and Conscience into the court as counselors, it
seems as if he is about to become that "oon cristene kyng." Much
later in the poem, Clergy develops his dour definition of Do-best ("to
be boold to blame be gilty, / Sypenes Pow seest Piself as in soule
clene" [B.X.264-65]) into another prophecy of this super-king:
The Social Dimension
"Ac Per shal come a kyng and confesse yow Religiouses,
And bete yow, as be bible teller, for brekynge of you're rule,
And amende Monyals, Monkes and Chanons,
And puten hem to hir penaunce, Ad pristinum statum ire;
Ac er Pat kyng come Caym shal awake,
Ac dowel shal dyngen hym adoun and destruye his my3te."
It is noteworthy that in C these lines are moved forward in the poem
and made a part of Reason's speech to the kingdom after he has been
made a counselor to the king.3 This reinforces the potential identity
of the king of Passils III and IV with the "oon cristene kyng." The
passage is also an example of what Morton Bloomfield calls "the
apocalyptic vision in all its glory."4 Although Bloomfield's charac-
terization of Piers Plowman as a "fourteenth-century apocalypse" is
somewhat too restrictive, he is quite correct in pointing out the close
connection between the social and the apocalyptic in Langland's
We might recall here the apparent inconsistencies which we discov-
ered in some of the psychological passages dealt with in chapter 2,
for they present problems which are complementary to the present
ones. In Lady Holy Church's speech and in Piers's directions for
finding Truth, our moral perception and good deeds found their proto-
type in the Incarnation; in a sense they were the Incarnation happen-
ing again. Wit's description of the Castle of Caro involved an idio-
syncratic version of Christian exemplarism in which our cognition
found its prototype in the Creation, showing as in a mirror the "wit"
of the Creator. In the episode of the Tree of Charity and Liberum-
Arbitrium, the movement of our free will, aided by grace, against the
temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil imitated the whole
sweep of sacred history from the Fall through the Incarnation, and
also contained within itself the image of the whole Christian society
in its three grades of perfection: marriage, widowhood, and virginity.
3. C.VI.169-80. Some of the apocalyptic elements are softened. Instead of
Cain's arising and fighting with Do-well, "Clerkus and holychurche shal be
clothed newe" (180).
4. Apocalypse, p. 121. On the political implications of medieval millenarian-
ism, see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, rev. ed. (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1970), esp. pp. 198-280.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
In all these passages, events and figures that logically belong outside
man are somehow incorporated within him. History and society find
their proper life and home in a country called Cor-hominis.
Suppose now we reverse the process and let the movements of so-
ciety and history imitate the movements of man's mind. Let the facul-
ties and disciplines and forces which logically belong inside man be
projected outside him. Conscience and Kind Wit and Reason now
walk abroad among men, plead before the king, and win places at his
side as counselors. The king, thus surrounded, does indeed begin to
look like the human will, but not by a metaphor of Langland's. In-
stead, the metaphor is in the society that Langland posits. The king
is the will of the commonwealth which ideally is formed to the image
and likeness of man.
Let us take a further step in this reversal. The reduction of history
to its image in man involves an abrogation of time. All of sacred his-
tory from the Fall to the Incarnation is compressed to the instant
when Piers or Liberum-Arbitrium shakes the tree "Amyddes mannes
body." The projection of man's image onto history at large, with its
evolution of a human society, involves a complementary abrogation
of time. When Reason and Conscience are fully projected into the
exterior world of society, when they take their seats as counselors to
the king, then time is no more; signs appear in the heavens:
"And er bis fortune falle fynde men shul be worste
By sixe sonnes and a ship and half a shef of Arwes;
And be myddel of a Moone shal make be lewes torne,
And Sar3ynes for Pat site shul synge Gloria in excelsis &c,
For Makometh and Mede myshappe shul Pat tyme;
For Melius est bonum nomen quam diuicie multe."5
Langland's kingdom, set up and tumbled down at different points in
the poem, has the natural atemporality of an hypothesis. Like, say,
the ideal state of Plato, it does not inhabit historical time. But there
is another way in which it transcends history and time. Considered as
an instance of the workings of grace, as a consequence of the histori-
cal moment of Incarnation and Redemption, Langland's kingdom is
5. The Latin text is Prov. 22:1.
The Social Dimension
an eschatological reality. Its advent marks the end of time and his-
tory. As we have seen, both the act of knowledge and the act of
moral choice in man had crucial events associated with them, namely,
the Creation and the Incarnation. Both associations followed, in dif-
ferent ways, from the fact that man was created in the image and
likeness of God. The reformation of society in man's image is thus, by
extension, its reformation in God's image. It has its own special mo-
ment in sacred history as well, the Second Coming, the last great
visitation of grace to man, foreshadowed by the Incarnation and by
the movements of the redeemed human will to God. Willy-nilly, it
seems, the ideal king's separate identity is lost in the Person of the
returning Christ. And yet Langland seems to have tried to keep them
apart, drawing upon tendencies of thought in his time which sought
to sanctify the kingdom of man without losing its secular character.
Langland's tableau of the ideal king surrounded by personified
faculties and virtues has many precedents in medieval political
thought which have been investigated recently by Ernst Kantorowicz.
Medieval legalists commonly made a distinction between the king as
public official and as private man, and they expressed this by the
fiction of "the King's Two Bodies." In his "Body Natural," the king
was a human being, subject to mortality and the infirmities of child-
hood, old age, disease, and sin. In his "Body Politic," he was immor-
tal, exempt from human infirmities, and invisible and immaterial ex-
cept as incarnated by the "Body Natural."6 The doctrine solved some
real problems in the definition of the king's authority, rendering it at
once stable and distinct from any merely personal grandeur.7
As the incarnation of the Body Politic, the individual king was
joined simultaneously and through space with his kingdom as head of
the corpus mysticum of the commonwealth. It is thus that we first
meet the king in Piers Plowman, with the constituents of his power
clearly outside his person:
6. See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval
Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 7, for a
succinct statement of the doctrine by the Elizabethan jurist Edmund Plowden.
7. On the last point, Kantorowicz points out how Parliament, in challenging
Charles I in 1642, did not alter the terms of his reign or of their subjection,
did not, in other words, have direct recourse to the modern doctrine that the
governor receives his authority from the consent of the governed. Instead, they
proceeded against the king in his "Body Natural" on behalf of the king in his
"Body Politic." See pp. 20-23.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Thanne kam Per a kyng; kny3thod hym ladde;
Might of Je communes made hym to regne.
And Panne cam kynde wit and clerkes he made
For to counseillen be kyng and be commune saue.
The king was also joined continuously and through time with every
other king before and after him in his Body Politic, which was in-
stantly reincarnated in his successor upon his death.9 Thus was estab-
lished a kind of profane eternal principle modeled upon-and in some
way competing with-the sacred eternal principle of the Church.
This grandiose fiction had several curious ramifications. Since the
king in his Body Politic was a species, not a mere individual, he was
like an angel, since, according to some theologians, each angel, as
pure form unmixed with matter, was a species to himself.10 Or he was
given the status, hardly less dignified, of a universal idea in the mind
of God, like "Justice" or "Truth" or "Reason." Legalists were fond
of decorating their technical treatises with dream visions of Reason,
Justice, Equity, and the like, enshrined in temples, endowed with
halos, and, sometimes, with the king in their midst as an equal, more
or less as Langland sees him at the end of Passus IV.11 These exalted
beings were supratemporal and yet not eternal. A new category was
needed: they were "eviternal."12 And they inhabited a theoretical
earthly paradise like that of Dante's De Monarchia, where this quasi-
theology of the Earthly City is drawn to its logical conclusion: "There
are two ends, therefore, which unerring Providence has proposed to
men: the beatitude of this life, which consists in the exercise of man's
own powers, and which is figured forth in the earthly Paradise; and
the beatitude of eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of the
divine vision to which man's own powers cannot ascend unless helped
by divine light, and which is made intelligible by the heavenly Para-
dise. On account of this, man has needed a twofold direction: to
wit, the supreme Pontiff who guides the human race to eternal life by
8. On this passage, see Donaldson, C-Text, pp. 88-111. For another state-
ment of the king's status as head of the body of the commonwealth see B.
9. See Kantorowicz, pp. 268-450, esp. 268-72.
10. See Saint Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1.50.4.
11. See Kantorowicz, pp. 107-12, 282, and (following p. 512) figs. 16b,
18a, 18b, 19, and 20.
12. Ibid., pp. 164, 171-72, 270-84.
The Social Dimension
revelation; and the Emperor who directs the human race to temporal
happiness by the lessons of philosophy."13 Though Dante retreats
from this confident dualism in the Commedia, his strong sense of the
prerogatives of secular rule still underlies his rage against Boniface
VIII and those famous, mysterious prophecies of a king who will
come and set all to rights.14
Dante's hoped-for king has some clear affinities with Langland's,
but Langland did not go as far as Dante in the separation of Church
and state. His theoretical statements are generally conservative. For
him the corpus mysticum par excellence is the Church, and kingly
authority is subordinate. We can gather this from Thought's explana-
tion of the three "Do's" to the Dreamer. Do-well, he says, is the laity,
and Do-bet the Clergy:
Dobest is aboue bope and bereb a bisshopes crosse;
Is hoked at Pat oon ende to holde men in good lif.
A pik is in bat potente to punge down Je wikked
That waiten any wikkednesse dowel to tene.
And as dowel and dobet dide hem to vnderstonde,
Thei han crowned a kyng to kepen hem alle,
That if dowel and dobet dide ayein dobest
And were vnbuxum at his biddyng, and bold to don ille,
Thanne sholde be kyng come and casten hem in prison,
And putten hem Ier ip penaunce wipoute pite or grace,
But dobest bede for hem abide Per for euere.
13. "Duos igitur fines Providentia illa inenarrabilis homini proposuit in-
tendendos; beatitudinem scilicet huius vitae, quae in operation propriae vir-
tutis consistit, et per terrestrem Paradisum figuratur; et beatitudinem vitae
aeternae, quae consistit in fruitione divini aspects ad quam propria virtus
ascendere non potest, nisi lumine divino adiuta, quae per Paradisum coelestem
intelligi datur. ... Propter quod opus fuit homini duplici directive, secundum
duplicem finem: scilicet summo Pontifice, qui secundum revelata humanum
genus perduceret ad vitam aeternam; et Imperatore, qui secundum philosophical
document genus humanum ad temporalem felicitatem dirigeret." De monar-
chia 3.16, ed. E. Moore, with introduction by W. H. V. Reade (Oxford: Oxford
University Piess, 1916), pp. 375, 376.
14. Cf. Inferno 1.94ff.; Purgatorio 33.37ff. The suggestion that these proph-
ecies refer to the Second Coming was made by R. E. Kaske, "Dante's 'DXV'
and 'Veltro,'" Traditio 17 (1961):185-256. His arguments are supported by
great learning, but they are not, I think, finally persuasive. See Robert Hol-
lander's comments in Allegory in Dante's Commedia (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1969), pp. 182-88, including notes.
15. The text is corrupt, and Donaldson and Kane's reading differs notably
from Skeat's (B.VIII.94-102), following the A-Text (IX.86-96) more closely.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
This sets up a rather complicated relationship between Church and
state. The religious and laity choose a king-much as "Might of Je
communes made hym to regne"-in order to keep them from doing
harm to the official hierarchical Church. The king can punish them
for doing "ayein dobest," but there is no legitimate way he can do
"ayein dobest" himself. He is endowed with absolute power "holy
kirke and clergie fro cursed men to defended" (B.XIX.467) and by
that very endowment is rendered subject to the Church. Nevertheless,
if Langland did not follow the ideal of kingship to Dante's conclu-
sions, he seems to have been drawn emotionally in that direction. His
constant and specific concern with social ills and their remedies seems
almost to imply the possibility of an earthly paradise regained, if not
by "man's own powers," by that mysterious enlargement of man's
powers by which he becomes "a god by be gospel, a ground and o
lofte." It is certainly true that he gives the vessel of this hope, the
"oon cristene kyng," a visionary grandeur he never grants to pope or
Logically, though, the Earthly City must yield to the City of God,
for him as for Saint Augustine. The sinful world is not to be re-
deemed, but supplanted. But the logic of Langland's vision is not al-
ways consistent with its emotional content. There is a specific density
to his concern for the world which seems to make it a fit subject of
redemption in his eyes. We are doing ill, he says, and we could be
doing well. We abuse our individual consciences, reasons, kind wits,
and thus block their emergence as corporate entities, as expressions of
our wills united in the search for Truth. But our very possession of
these faculties and our awareness of how their operations are trans-
formed by the graces of the Incarnation argue the possibility of their
emergence as counselors to the one Christian king, a king who rules
not in heaven but on earth. There remains, however, the contradic-
tion inherent in Langland's social thought. Every attempt to realize
his vision of society's final redemption must turn into a vision of its
end in apocalypse. For the orthodox Christian there is no other way.
The fullness of time is the end of time. Signs appear in the heavens,
and time redeemed is time no more.
This central irony of the poem's outlook blocks any attempt to read
it as a subjective, mystical journey to contemplation. There is no
mystical purgation of the senses in the poem and no contemptus
mundi. The dreamer moves among internal faculties in the Vita de
Dowel, but each of them trains his gaze steadily on the world outside.
The Social Dimension
Like Langland, they care intensely about that world and about its
institutions. From vantages further and further inside the dreamer,
Thought, Wit, Study, and Anima all look out and give detailed criti-
cisms of a world which refuses to resolve itself into their corporate
image and the image of that Truth which is their exemplar.
Lady Holy Church said that "in Pe herte is Pe heed and Pe
hei3e well" of Truth. Piers the Plowman gave his laborious direc-
tions-through the Ten Commandments, past Grace the gate-ward,
and into the court of Truth-and the journey was found to end where
it began, in the heart of man. There Truth was found in a chain of
charity, Christ incarnate submitting to the bondage of His love for
man. The C-text reproduces this passage with a significant alteration:
"And yf Grace graunte the to go yn in thys wise,
Thow shalt se Treuthe sytte in thy selue herte,
And solace thy soule and saue the fro pyne.
Al-so charge Charyte a church to make
In thyn hole herte to herberghwen alle treuthe,
And fynde alle manere folke fode to hure sales,
Yf loue and leaute and owre lawe be trewe."
If the passage in B points to the Incarnation, this one looks beyond
that central event to its ultimate consequence, the sacred corpus
mysticum, the Heavenly City which is the remote aspiration of Piers's
barn of Unity. This is the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us, of
which every earthly kingdom is but a shadow or figure. But the pres-
ence of such a clear exemplar of social perfection within our hearts
during our lifetime begets inevitably a desire to give substance to the
shadow, to found a human society that embodies that social perfec-
tion here on earth. For Langland such a desire can be neither satis-
fied nor stilled. Not for him the equanimity of Socrates, who, when
faced with the objection that his ideal Republic was "a constitution
within" the wise man "founded in words," conceded that only "in
heaven, perhaps, a pattern of it is indeed laid up, for him that has
eyes to see, and seeing to settle himself therein. It matters nothing
whether it exists anywhere or shall exist."16 It matters a great deal to
Langland, and perhaps in the restless yearning of his social vision
16. Plato, Republic, 9 (591e, 592), in Great Dialogues of Plato, tr. W. H. D.
Rouse (New York: Mentor Books, 1956), p. 393.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
we can discern once again the image of God within man. For if the
presence of the Kingdom of God, the mystical body of Christ, within
our hearts compels us to try to give it a visible reality in the social
world, perhaps in that effort we imitate the procession of Love in the
Trinity which could not be satisfied "Til it hadde of Pe erje yeten
The great human obstacle to the reformation of the world in man's
image is cupidity. For a broad definition of this vice we can turn to
Saint Augustine: "And so when a man lives according to man, not
according to God, he is like the devil For it was God who said,
'I am the truth.' .. But when a man lives according to himself .
he certainly lives according to a lie.""17 Langland's personifications of
the Deadly Sins are studies in cupidity in this extended sense. As
human beings, they have chosen to define themselves by the sins whose
names they bear, and, in living out their different lies, they feed on
themselves in bitter loneliness. This loneliness has as much effect on
us as their raffish humor. Most of the jokes in their scenes turn on
failures of communication or on situations which isolate them.18 Av-
arice, in his funniest lines, talks at cross purposes with Repentance
because he does not know what "restitucion" means (B.V.230-36).
Sloth simply falls asleep over the question of restitution (B.V.441).
Gluttony's riotous camaraderie at Betty's alehouse gives way to isola-
tion as the physical effects of overindulgence (graphically described)
affront the senses of his companions and his family (B.V.296-362).
Wrath stirs up discord in convents and monasteries because he has
"no likyng wi bo leodes to wonye" (B.V.176). This alienation
operates at different levels of intensity throughout society; and, by
its diversion of the human will into private, self-seeking, ultimately
self-consuming activities, it blocks the emergence of the corpus mysti-
cum. Several times in the poem society almost coalesces into its ideal
form, only to have two or three self-seeking members turn away. In
each case this foreshadows a general unraveling of the social fabric.
17. "Cum ergo vivit homo secundum hominem, non secundum Deum,
similis est diabolo Deus est enim qui dixit, Ego sum veritas (Joan. XIV,
6). Cum vero vivit secundum se ipsum, hoc est secundum hominem, non
secundum Deum, profecto secundum mendacium vivit." De civitate Dei 14.4.1,
in PL 41:407.
18. Cf. Mary Carruthers, The Search for Saint Truth: A Study of Meaning
in Piers Plowman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 3-5.
The Social Dimension
The temptations that lead to this unraveling are most clearly repre-
sented by Lady Meed, one of Langland's finest creations. I do not
think she is simply Cupidity, as Father Dunning says.19 Her name
means "reward," and, as frequently happens in Langland's best per-
sonifications, the moral ambiguities of the word are rendered by the
ambiguities of the character. I agree with A. G. Mitchell who argues
that she is amoral rather than immoral.20 She hardly has the will
power to embody a sin. Instead of showing the perverse self-determi-
nation which defines cupidity, Meed shows almost no self-determina-
tion at all. Marriage to False seems to her a jolly enough idea, but
she would just as soon marry Conscience once the constant induce-
ments of her former suitor and his entourage are removed. Her de-
fense against Conscience's charges is not so much a plea for an evil
principle as it is a reaction to a personal insult from a man proposed
to her as a husband. Lady Meed is just a girl who can't say no,
who is so stupefyingly alluring that she does not need to be positively
evil to inspire evil thoughts in the heart of every man who looks at
her. Her power comes simply from her complaisance.
A short speech by Theology gives a more abstract view of Lady
Meed, but one that agrees with the dramatic ambiguity of her char-
acter. It also makes the identification with cupidity extremely difficult.
Theology reproaches Civil for authorizing the marriage of Lady Meed
to False "to wrapbe with truee:
"For Mede is muliere of Amendes engendred
God granted to gyue Mede to true,
And bow hast gyuen hire to a gilour, now god gyue Pee sorwe!
The text teller bee no3t so, Trube woot be soPe,
For Dignus est operarius his hire to haue,
And bow hast fest hire wib Fals; fy on Pi lawe!
Wel ye witen, wernardes, but if you're wit faille,
That Fals is feyntlees and fikel in his werkes,
And as a Bastard ybore of Belsabubbes kynne.
And Mede is muliere, a maiden of goode;
She my3te kisse be kyng for cosyn and she wolde."
19. A-Text, p. 69.
20. Lady Meed and the Art of Piers Plowman, The 3rd Chambers Memorial
Lecture (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1956), esp. pp. 4-6.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Theology is no fool, and what he says should not be taken lightly.
Later in the poem Study gives Theology her grudging approval: al-
though it seems "mystier" and "derker" the deeper she looks into it
and though "It is no Science forsope for to sotile Inne," still she loves
it the better because "it letep best bi loue" (B.X.186-88, 190). Theol-
ogy's present speech is dark and misty enough, certainly, and I sup-
pose this is why critics have not subtled in it when discussing Lady
Meed.21 Theology pleads against the marriage of Meed to False be-
cause Meed's mother is Amends,22 and God has promised to give
Meed in marriage to Truth. It is hard to see how God could arrange
such a marriage if Meed represented cupidity. Theology uses "truth"
ambiguously, as Lady Holy Church did in the preceding Passus.
When he blames Civil for arranging the wedding "to wraje wib
truee" he is speaking of transcendent Truth, God Himself. When
he says that God has promised "to gyue Mede to truee" he is speak-
ing of immanent truth, the presence of God in man guiding man to
good works. If Meed were married to Truth she would appear in the
world as the good reward of which Christ said, "dignus est operarius
mercede sua."23 Furthermore, her marriage to Truth would give her
a share in Truth's ambiguity; her earthly meaning would gain a heav-
enly meaning as well. This is still somewhat dark and misty, and
Langland's extended commentary on these ideas, the speech in which
Conscience refuses to marry Meed, seems to have caused him some
The well-meaning king proposes to make an honest woman of
Meed by marrying her to Conscience. Conscience refuses emphati-
cally, saying that she corrupts the realm. Meed, outraged at this insult,
defends herself with considerable skill, and claims (perhaps somewhat
obscurely) that Conscience, not she, ruined the king's recent French
campaign. She concludes, quite plausibly, that rewards are the king's
inducements to loyal service, the hire of Church and labor, and the
21. Mitchell (p. 5) cites the passage in support of his theory that Lady
Meed is ambiguous, but he does not discuss it in detail. John A. Yunk, in The
Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire (Notre
Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), p. 7, passes over the
speech in two sentences of inaccurate paraphrase.
22. False is Meed's father as well as her would-be husband (B.II.25; C.
III.121). Incest makes an interesting metaphor for cupidity, but I do not think
Langland meant this. He seems to have jumbled up his personifications. The
change of her father's name to "Fauel" in C.III.25 seems an effort to patch
23. Luke 10:7. A.II.86 gives the full clause; C omits it.
The Social Dimension
medium of commerce. The king is convinced: "Quod be kyng to
Conscience, 'bi crist, as me Pynkeb, / Mede is worth e
maistrie to haue.' (B.III.228-29). Conscience respectfully refutes
the king with a careful, rather difficult differentiation of three terms:
what we may call heavenly meed which "god of his grace gyue) in
his blisse / To hem that werchen wel while Pei ben here" (232-33);
"mesurelees" earthly meed which he equates with the bribes of Psalm
26:10 (Authorized Version); and "mesurable hire" (256), the just
wage and just price which is not a meed at all. Both meeds have the
quality of being measureless, rewards which bear no proportion to
the works performed.24 The equivocation which makes the same term
yield meanings so emphatically opposed, de bono and de malo, sym-
bolizes the peril of life in the field of folk between the two antithetical
towers. The pursuit of a measureless reward in this world is a per-
verse imitation of the order of heaven and thus a commitment to hell.
A precedent for this kind of equivocation can be found in the
Augustinian idea of cupidity by which man becomes his own end and
thus a perverted image of God. Consider, for example, this analysis
of earthly politics, with its pointed equivocation on "peace": "How
much more is a man driven by the laws of his nature to enter into
some sort of fellowship and, as far as possible, maintain peace with
all men. After all, even wicked men fight for the peace of their own
people, and would make all people their own if they could, so that all
people and things might be subject to one and, bound to him, might
yield themselves to his peace alone, whether for love or fear. For thus
does pride perversely imitate God. It hates equality with fellow men
under God. Rather it would impose its rule on its fellows, supplanting
God. It hates God's just peace and loves its own wicked peace. Still,
it cannot help loving peace of some sort. No vice is so utterly con-
trary to nature as to wipe out even its last traces."25 Such an analysis,
with its dismissal of all grand political designs as sinful expressions of
24. Cf. Lawlor, Piers Plowman, p. 29; Mitchell, Lady Meed, pp. 13-14.
25. "Quanto magis homo fertur quodammodo naturae suae legibus ad
ineundam societatem pacemque cum hominibus, quantum in ipso est, omnibus
obtinendam: cum etiam mali pro pace suorum belligerent, omnesque, si possint,
suos facere velint, ut uni cuncti et cuncta deserviant; quo pacto, nisi in ejus
pacem, vel amando, vel timendo consentiant? Sic enim superbia perverse imi-
tatur Deum. Odit namque cum sociis aequalitatem sub illo: sed imponere vult
sociis dominationem suam pro illo. Odit ergo justam pacem Dei et amat
iniquam pacem suam: non amare tamen qualemcumque pacem nullo modo
potest. Nullum quippe vitium ita contra naturam est, ut naturae deleat etiam
extrema vestigia." De civitate Dei 19.12.2, in PL 41:639.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
human pride, sets Dante's earthly paradise on its head. More to the
point here, though, is the fact that the play on "peace" which, in one
form or another, is a necessary goal of man, parallels exactly Lang-
land's play on "mede," measureless reward.
As usual, Langland takes a position between Saint Augustine and
Dante. He introduces an intermediate term, measurable hire, to break
the fall from the first kind of meed to the second and give a Christian
significance to man's social and economic life in this world. He recog-
nizes and accepts Augustine's vision of human nature, and of the
perilous ambiguity of man's motives and powers which can save or
damn him, depending on whether or not they are in contact with
grace. This vision lies behind several equivocal personifications in the
poem and determines the topography of the opening scene. But Lang-
land's concern throughout the poem always returns to that central
field of folk who live in a political community and on a money econ-
omy. His ambition, not shared by Augustine, is that this society be
reformed to the image of God, so that the Incarnation may be ful-
filled in history. The question is, how? How can measurable hire re-
flect the infinite largesse of God and so transform man's economy into
an image of the heavenly economy?
The C-text gives evidence of how Langland struggled with this idea,
for Conscience's speech is revised extensively. First, the heavenly
meed is eliminated and the earthly, corrupt meed is opposed to mea-
surable hire, which now has a new name, "mercede." This name
comes from the text in Theology's speech, "dignus est operarius mer-
cede sua," a quotation which disappears in the C version. He more
than makes up for this simplification, however, by adding an involved,
seventy-four-line conceit which is generally regarded as the ugly duck-
ling of the C revision.26 Conscience compares the distinction between
meed and mercede to the distinction between the incorrect and cor-
rect grammatical relations of a substantive and an adjective in a sen-
tence. The passage is hard to follow anyway, but it is entirely unin-
telligible if the reader forgets that meed and mercede are being
26. C.IV.355-409. For a short catalogue of critical abuse, see Donaldson,
C-Text, 79n. George Kane, in Middle English Literature (London: Methuen,
1951), says it "rivals Dante's account of the spots on the moon for sheer de-
liberate dullness" (p. 185). For a brief treatment of the medieval and ancient
background of this sort of grammatical metaphor, see Ernst Robert Curtius,
European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New
York: Harper and Row, 1953), pp. 414-16.
The Social Dimension
compared not to two things but to relations of things.27 According to
Conscience, "Relacioun rect," the relation that corresponds to mer-
"is a record of treuthe
Folowynge and fyndynge out Pe fundement of a strenghe
And styfliche stand forth to strenghe Pe fundement
In kynde and in case and in Pe course of nombre.
As a leel laborer byleueth with his master
In his pay and in his pite and in his puyr treuthe
To pay hym yf he perform and haue pite yf he faileth
And take hym for his trauaile al Pat treuthe wolde."
So far this is clear enough. The right relation of substantive and ad-
jective, with its agreement of kind (gender), number, and case, is a
type of the right relation of laborer and master, with their strict pro-
portion of work and reward for work. The laborer, whose type is the
adjective, is naturally subordinate to the master, whose type is the
substantive. Their relationship is governed by truth, and, as usual, this
term complicates things. The line from laborer to master now appears
to be a refraction of the line from man to God:
27. This point is missed by Margaret Amassian and James Sadowsky in an
important article, "Mede and Mercede: A Study of the Grammatical Metaphor
in 'Piers Plowman' C: IV: 335-409," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971):
457-76. After saying that the "two kinds of reward are being likened to two
kinds of grammatical relationship" (463), they shift to a comparison of the
rewards to the terms of a relationship: "Mede and Mercede are alike as sub-
stantive and adjective are alike in their inflectional agreement" (464). The
difficulty of maintaining this alignment soon forces them to postulate "the fact
that the poet is not saying what he means" (465; cf. 468). A complicating fac-
tor is their treatment of Langland's "direct and indirect relation" as referring
to the link of relative pronoun to its antecedent, not to the grammatical agree-
ment of adjective and noun. This is attractive in the light of a grammatical
text they cite as an analogue (463n.), but not finally persuasive. It involves a
double analogy (antecedent/relative and substantive/adjective) which keeps
going out of focus; and it seems to counter the intent of C.IV.335-40, where
the agreement of substantive and adjective (338) seems to be identical with
the relationss" (335-36), not an alternative to them.
28. Except where noted I am following the text as edited by Mitchell and
included as an appendix in Lady Meed, pp. 26-27. This will eventually appear
in the new edition of C being prepared by Mitchell and G. H. Russell for the
Athlone Press of the University of London. I have omitted Mitchell's brackets
and other editorial apparatus and supplied some punctuation.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
"So of holy herte cometh hope and hardy relacioun,
Seketh and seweth his sustantif sauacioun
That is god the ground of al a graciouse antecedent.
And man is relatif rect yf he be rihte trewe.
He acordeth with crist in kynde verbum caro factum est
In case credere in ecclesia in holy kyrke to bileue
In nombre Rotye and aryse and remissioun to haue
Of oure sory synnes to be assoiled and yclansed
And lyue as oure crede vs kenneth with crist withouten ende.
This is relacion rect ryht as adiectyf and sustantyf
Acordeth in alle kyndes with his antecedent."
The analogy is quite striking if one follows it carefully. Man in this
world is like an adjective following and taking its form from its noun,
his salvation. This is another way of expressing the operations of
truth explained by Lady Holy Church. As immanent in man, truth
projects man towards its transcendent aspect, "That is god the ground
of al, a graciouse antecedent." God is antecedent of all the substan-
tives under discussion here, so that man's social relationship to his
master, which defines him in the world, is a figure of his relationship
to his own salvation, which defines him in eternity. This does not
arise simply from the nature of society. It is a mystery of grace, aris-
ing from the intersection of eternity and the temporal history that is
society's medium when the Word was made flesh and man was made
to accord "with crist in kynde." From this likeness in kind follow the
likenesses of case and number. And the right ordering of the sentence
which is this earthly life makes clear its reference to the divine Idea:
it "Acordeth in alle kyndes with his antecedent."
The social structure of this "relacioun rect" is elaborated in the
familiar form of king and commons:
"Ac relacioun rect is a ryhtful custume
As a kyng to clayme the comune at his will
To folowe and to fynde hym and fecche at hem his consayl
That here loue to his lawe Thorw al be lond acorde.
So comune claymeth of a kyng there kyne thynges,
Lawe, loue, and lewete, and hym lord antecedent,
Bothe heued and here kyng haldyng with no partey3e
The Social Dimension
Bote standynge as a stake Pat stiketh in a mere
Bytwene two lordes for a trewe market "
Here "Lawe, loue, and lewete" are the equivalents in the earthly
kingdom of the kind, case, and number that bind man to the heavenly
kingdom; and the king as antecedent is the earthly type of the divine
Idea. Law in the kingdom is the matrix of love, which makes it
accord "Thorw al be lond." "Lewete" or "leute"-which is "exact
justice; strict adherence to the letter of the law"30-is thus a discipline
of social love in each citizen. We shall have occasion to return to this
alliterative triad which, as P. M. Kean points out, recur in the poem
"with almost the persistence of 'Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest the thridde'
in the Vita."31
This more elaborate order in the kingdom is once again refracted
through the Incarnation into the bond between man and God:
"Ac adiectyf and sustantyf is as y her tolde,
That is vnite, acordaunce in case, in gendre, and in noumbre,
And is to mene in oure mouth more ne mynne
But Pat alle maner men, wymmen, and children
Sholde confourme hem to o kynde, on holy kyrke to bileue,
And coueyte be case when thei couthe vnderstande
To syke for here synnes and soffre harde penaunces."
29. Skeat has a line just preceding this passage which Mitchell omits, so
that in this and subsequent passages Skeat's line numbers are higher by one.
30. So defined by Donaldson, C-Text, 66 n.4. P. M. Kean, in "Love, Law,
and Lewte in Piers Plowman," Review of English Studies 15 (1964):254-57,
rejects this definition, but the one she offers instead is not really much dif-
ferent. She adduces several supporting texts from Aristotle and St. Thomas
which are quite well chosen and relevant, but which could illustrate Donald-
son's definition just as easily. Her discomfort with Donaldson's definition can,
I think, be compared with the discomfort of some critics over the usual gloss
of "kynde knowyng" as "natural knowledge." Both glosses seem too dry and
uninteresting to be connected in such an immediate way with love. But their
affective content in Piers Plowman seems peculiar to Langland and probably
cannot find clear corroboration in external philological evidence. Amassian and
Sadowsky make the good suggestion that for Langland "leute" combines the
senses of fidelitas and fides, especially in conjunction with the similarly am-
biguous "treuthe" (pp. 461-62, 471-72).
31. "Love, Law, and Lewte," p. 241.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
At this point we should note a shift in terms. Earlier in the passage
the man who was "rihte trewe" accorded with Christ "in kynde"
through the Incarnation, "in case" through belief in the Church, and
"in nombre" through the promise of resurrection and remission of
sins after death. Now Conscience tells us that true men in society
accord with each other in "o kynde"; they aspire to a natural state of
sorrow and penance for sin which will agree in case with the suffering
Christ because He willingly took on man's number, mortality and
the capacity for suffering. They
"soffre harde penaunces
For bat ilke lordes loue Pat for oure loue deyede
And coueytede oure kynde and be kald in oure name
And nyme hym in to oure noumbre now and euere more
Qui in caritate manet in deo manet et deus in eo.
Thus is man and mankynde in maner of a sustantyf
As hic et hec homo askyng an adiectyf
Of there trewe termisones trinitas vnus deus
Nominatiuo pater et filius et spirits sanctus."
The final shift in terms is the most fundamental and daring. Man,
who was once adjective to God's substantive, is now substantive to
God's adjective. The normal doctrinal description of Christ as Deus
homo is analyzed grammatically to ratify man's finite image of the
infinite God. Langland grounds this image in the Incarnation and
evolves it socially. Man's agreement in kind with Christ is made
manifest in the world through his agreement in kind with other men.
Love, law, and leute define the social aspect of charity, and, accord-
ing to Saint John's epistle (4:16): "Qui in caritate manet in deo
manet et deus in eo." The man true in society is "a god by be gospel
a ground and o lofte."
All of this began as a definition of mercede as opposed to meed,
although the reader may be forgiven if this has slipped his mind. The
point is that just as the infinite God finds His proper image in finite
man, so His infinite rewards find their proper image in man's finite
rewards. Mercede, measurable hire, is the only true reflection of
God's immeasurable meed. To return to Theology's terms in the B-
text, only by marriage to Truth could Meed be made an honest
woman. Thus Theology was right in defending her, but Conscience
The Social Dimension
was also right in rejecting her. Lady Meed is not presently married to
Truth, so, by the sort of judgment proper to Conscience, she is a
Because God submitted to the rigors of finitude in the Incarnation,
the finite justice of man's dealings with his fellow man can be in some
sense deified. But measureless meed on earth "perversely imitates
God." It is the indirect relation which turns awry the sentence of
"Indirect thyng is as ho so coueytede
Alle kyn kynde to knowe and to folowe
And without [case] to cache to and come to bothe nombres
In which ben gode and nat gode and graunte here neyper will.
So indirect is inlyche to coueyte
To acorde in alle kynde and in alle kyn nombre
Withouten coest and care and alle kyn trauayle."
The man seeking an unlimited good in this life is separating himself
from the divine order. He is trying to be a god and immortal and thus
attain to the kind and number of God, without guiding himself by the
teachings of the Church and matching the divine Substantive in case.
This deviation has social consequences as well:
"Ac Pe most parties of the people now puyr indirect semeth
For they wilnen and wolden as beste were for hemsulue
Thow the kyng and be comune al Je coest hadde.
Such inparfit people repreueth alle resoun
And halt hem vnstedefast for hem lakketh case.
As relatifs indirect reccheth thei neuere
Of the course of case so their cacche suluer,
Be the peccunie ypaied thow parties chyde.
32. In line 367 I have departed from Mitchell's text to retain Skeat's
"case." Mitchell substitutes "cause," which has the authority of better MSS.
I think "case" is preferable because of the presence of "kynde" and "noumbres"
nearby. For a scribe who was not following Langland's conceit carefully,
"cause" would be a likely substitution since it makes the line stand on its own
intelligibly; "case" is therefore a durior lectio and, as such, a better candidate
for authenticity. Cf. the passage cited next, where "case" is used in such a way
as to complete the meaning of this passage.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
He Pat mede may lacche maketh lytel tale,
Nyme he a noumbre of nobles or of shillynges.
How Pat cliauntes acorde acounteth mede litel."
Here in a nutshell is the whole social malaise of Langland's England.
The desire for money causes people to "halt hem vnstedefast." The
friars are the prime example of this. Following an exaggerated doc-
trine of poverty, they have no stable home or endowment. Their total
want is only too easily turned into total rapacity. They wax "out of
noumbre" and preach "That alle Pynges vnder heuene ou3te to ben
in comune" (B.XX.269, 276),33 thus threatening to abolish the whole
social grammar by which man is led back to "god the ground of al, a
graciouse antecedent." The wandering friars are more popular con-
fessors than the parish priests; so a rivalry breaks out within the
clergy. Parish priests complain that they can no longer make a decent
living from their depleted rural churches; so they, too, become wan-
derers, going off to London to earn easy fees saying Mass for the
rich (B.Prol.83-98). The parish system is thus cut loose from its
moorings. Laymen and religious pick up the infection and practice the
spurious devotion of pilgrimages. The typical pilgrim has been to
dozens of shrines and has souvenirs to prove it, but he has never
heard of the shrine of Truth (B.V.515-36). Pardoners and other
emissaries of Rome move in to fleece the faithful, then transport cur-
rency illegally out of England (B.Prol.68-82; IV.128-33). Wander-
ing of one sort or another is a symbol of the radical unintelligibility
of contemporary society, and the man searching society for his own
image and the image of God is himself reduced to restless, aimless
wandering, and to the uneasy consciousness of embodying to some
extent the very evils he criticizes in society.34
All these problems exemplify the lack of love, law, and leute, those
qualities which recur so often in Langland's vision of an ideal society.
At several points in the poem they have almost a sacred character,
and this probably reflects the late medieval tendency to mix legality
and liturgy. Lawyers described themselves as priests at the altar of
law, and nearly turned lex and iustitia-compare law and leute-into
33. On the friars' numberlessness see Bloomfield, Apocalypse, p. 145; on a
parallel to this idea in monastic thought see pp. 47-50.
34. This uncomfortable self-consciousness is most clearly expressed in C.
VI.1-108, but it also pervades the whole poem in each of the three versions.
Kirk, Dream Thought, passim, gives particular emphasis to this aspect of the
The Social Dimension
sacraments.35 So we have Lady Holy Church complaining that Lady
Meed has "ylakked my lemman Pat leautee is hoten" (B.II.21), and
Trajan's proud claim that "al be clergie vnder crist ne my3te me
cracche fro helle,/ But oonliche loue and leautee and my laweful
domes" (B.XI.144-45). Lady Holy Church uses two of the terms
and, perhaps, implies the third as she links the social order of heaven
and earth, just after describing Love's Incarnation:
"Forgi is loue ledere of be lordes folk of heuene
And a meene, as be Mair is, bitwene be commune & Pe kyng;
Right so is loue a ledere and be lawe shape;
Vpon man for hise mysdedes be mercyment he taxeb.
And for to known it kyndely, it comseb by myght,
And in be herte Pere is the heed and be hei3e welle"
And, in the C-text, as we saw earlier, the ideal society whose image
wells up in the redeemed human heart will provide for all men "Yf
loue and leaute and owre lawe be trewe" (C.VIII.260).
Conscience's speech before the king, in which he rejects Meed and
predicts the coming of "oon cristene kyng," contains a particularly
beautiful vision of that ideal society brought forth into the world. In
it he sets up an odd opposition among the three terms:
Shal na moore Mede be master on erpe,
Ac loue and lowenesse and leautee togideres;
Thise shul ben Maistres on moolde trewe men to saue.
And whoso trespaseb to true or take ayein his will,
Leaute shal don hym lawe and no lif ellis.
Shal no sergeant for Pat service were a silk howue,
Ne no pelure in his panelon for pledynge at be barre;
Mede of mysdoeres make many lordes,
And ouer lordes lawes lede)b e Reaumes.
Ac kynde loue shal come 3it and Conscience togideres
And make of lawe a laborer; swich loue shal arise
And swich pees among be people and a parfit true
That lewes shul wene in hire wit, and wexen glade,
That Moyses or Messie be come into myddelerpe,
And haue wonder in hire hertes Pat men beb so trewe.
35. See Kantorowicz, pp. 93-94, 115-19. 141-42.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
The triad is first altered: "lowenesse" replaces "lawe." Then "Leaute,"
personified, becomes a judge administering law instead of the sub-
jects' disposition to obey the law. Finally, "kynde loue" will come
with Conscience and reduce law to an obedient subject laboring in
the field, as men do now in obedience to the law. In a subsequent
passage, Reason is more circumstantial and humbling in his allocation
"And if Pow werche it in werk I wedde myne eris
That lawe shal ben a laborer and lede afeld donge,
And loue shal lede bi lond as Pe leef lykep!"
And so it seems that when the world is reformed to man's image and
God's, two of the recurring triad will turn on the third and render
Is Langland preaching anarchy? In what sense can leute, a strict
regard for the law, become instead the norm of law? The answer to
the first question, of course, is no, and the answer to the second leads
us into a consideration of the curiously comic tone of Langland's
apocalyptic vision. Law, as I said earlier, is the matrix of love in so-
ciety. Yet as law achieves objective form in the world, as positive
written law, it becomes liable to exploitation by selfish men. Lang-
land's king rebukes Law for this; or, looking through the personifica-
tion, he blames his crooked lawyers who have been overmasteredd"
by Meed (B.IV.174-81). Law becomes one of those equivocal terms
that can be good or evil depending on whether they follow God's
truth or man's lie. Leute, a human disposition, is not similarly equivo-
cal. If its outer manifestation is obedience to the law, its inner im-
pulse is love. It is the social expression of the Love that came down
to alloy itself with earth. Written laws in the world, with their ten-
dency to legalism in the pejorative sense, are a response to the lawless
tendencies of fallen man. When society is redeemed, this sort of law
will be unnecessary, since men will be guided by an inner impulse
toward harmony, that is, by leute. It will be as if all society were to
move to the music that rose when Christ harrowed hell, freeing men
from an earlier Law, and bringing the four daughters of God together
in a dance (B.XVIII.424-25).
We have noted in chapter 2 that Langland tends, almost in spite of
himself, to glorify minstrels and lunatics and fools. In each revision,
The Social Dimension
this was a cause of discomfort to him because he knew that most of
these people in the real world were scoundrels and loafers. In the
C-text, many of the references are cut or turned against the minstrels.
But C introduces some new figures, the "lunatik lollers" (C.X.107)
who wander "witlees" just as "Peter dude and Paul" (C.X.111-12).
They have the gift of prophecy, and are
murye-mouthede men, mynstrales of heuene,
And godes boyes, bordiours, as the bok telleth,
Si quis uidetur sapiens, fiet stultus ut sit sapiens.
In the end of the poem, the only men who stand by Conscience and
go into the besieged barn of Unity are these same happy-go-lucky
types. All others side with Antichrist:
And al be Couent cam to welcome a tyraunt
And alle hise as wel as hym, saue only fooles;
Which foolis were wel gladdere to deye
Than to lyue longer sip Leute was so rebuked.
The class in society which seems least amenable to law is the only
one to rally to the defense of leute. What appears in this world as a
strict regard for law is, sub specie aeternitatis, the "fre liberal will"
of God's minstrels. It is the strict regard for the measure of the dance
that sets free the movements of the dancer.
In the last two Passfis of Piers Plowman there is a pervasive sense of
djad vu. There are echoes of words and situations from the beginning
of the poem, and their cumulative effect is to damp the exuberance of
Passus XVIII and prepare the reader for the collapse of the holy
society established by Grace. Much of the time Will is a passive on-
looker, as he was in the Visio. Again and again the reader is reminded
that he has been here before, that this enterprise begun with such
high hopes is doomed.
36. The Latin text is 1 Cor. 3:18. Donaldson (C-Text, pp. 144-47) con-
nects this passage with the Franciscan idea of Joculatores Domini.
37. Cf. C.XXIII.60-63.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
A social idealist like Langland, or like his dreamer, always faces a
world that is churlishly unresponsive to his redeemed vision of it. The
dream is right, and yet the waking world gives it the lie and always
seems to win the argument. In Langland's case the dream has a right-
ness grounded on an objective historical fact, the Redemption, and
this only makes more heartbreaking its wreckage when he sends it
forth into the real world it was meant to transform. To give equal
recognition to the validity and the perishability of his vision, as he does
in the conclusion of his poem, is an act of rare imaginative courage.
Throughout his life the dreamer has pondered his vision of a re-
deemed society, tracing it through all his inner faculties to the source
of their redemption in history, the Incarnation. Society's salvation
must be as sure as his own, for their source is the same. Having
reached that central event in history, the dreamer can recast the trials
of his hypothetical kingdom in their most fundamental terms: at bot-
tom the struggle is between the kingdom of Grace and Antichrist.38
Now when Piers goes into the field the "literal" grains he sows have
become "spiritually" the cardinal virtues. His four oxen are now the
four Evangelists. His four bullocks are the Fathers of the Church who
harrow the crops of "holy scripture" with "an olde and a newe" har-
row, "Id est, vetus testamentum et nouum" (B.XIX.262-311). The
half-acre of the Visio has been allegorized, and this to the Christian
Middle Ages means that it has been reconstituted in terms of its
This terminology suggests the famous tradition of the allegorical
reading of Scripture, or, more precisely, the fourfold sense of Scrip-
ture. I should like to suggest, tentatively, a relationship between this
tradition and the structure of Langland's poem after the Pardon scene,
a relationship which may shed particular light on the poem's con-
clusion. As is well known, medieval exegetes distinguished two kinds
of meaning in the Bible, literal (or historical) and spiritual. The first
had reference to the reality of words and things in the Bible, the sec-
ond to their significance, revealed to the prayerful reader by the Holy
38. In so conceiving the theme of the last two Passfis, I am departing from
Morton Bloomfield's analysis (Apocalypse, pp. 114, 125), at least insofar as it
seems to imply Langland's belief in the imminent end of the world. As a
general rule, I think it would be safer to say that the role of such millenarian-
ism in Piers Plowman is somewhat like that of Platonic reminiscence in Words-
worth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." In each case the poetic use of a
belief is more important than-and does not imply-actual adherence to the
The Social Dimension
Spirit. The second sort of meaning had three divisions: the allegorical,
by which the literal meaning was a figure of the Incarnation and Re-
demption; the tropological, by which the literal meaning revealed the
right ordering of our lives in love (caritas); and the anagogical, by
which the literal meaning revealed the union with God of the indi-
vidual soul at the end of life (a union which could have a transitory
anticipation in mystical contemplation), or the union of all faithful
souls with God at the end of time. Some commentators varied the
order of these meanings, having tropology emerge first from the literal
sense, followed by allegory.39 Theologians commonly projected these
four senses onto history and other aspects of created reality.40 One
such projection was the doctrine of the "triple coming of Christ," dis-
cussed in some detail by Pere de Lubac, and given in convenient sum-
mary by the twelfth-century commentator Henry of Marcy: "But ac-
cording to the spiritual sense all that Scripture of the Old Testament
spreads itself out in the past with a foresight of the future, foretelling
a triple coming of Christ, whether it be the first, which was secret and
lowly and behind us in time; or the second, present each day, which
is felt, inward and sweet, by holy men; or the third, which is awaited,
terrible and plain to all, at the end of time."41 Each of these comings
of Christ was aligned with one of the three spiritual senses of Scrip-
ture. The first corresponded to the allegorical sense because it was
that actual Incarnation of the Godhead which all the Old Testament
had prefigured. The second corresponded to the tropological sense
because it was the motivation of the heart to good works which was
the continuing presence of the Incarnation in subsequent history. The
third corresponded to the anagogical sense because it was the moment
of final reunion of all the souls of the just with God, the moment when
39. There were other variations which took anagogy from the last place,
but the two I have mentioned are the dominant orders. Henri de Lubac dis-
cusses the significance of these different orders in Exegese Medievale, 4 vols.
(Paris: Aubier, 1959), 1:144-69, 191-98.
40. A good example is Saint Bonaventure's De Reductione Artium ad Theo-
logum, which applied the four senses to the liberal and mechanical arts. See
Opera Omnia 5 (Quaracchi, 1891), and the Latin-English edition of Sister
Emma Th6rese Healy (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: St. Bonaventure College, 1939).
41. "Secundum sensum vero spiritualem, tota ipsa Scriptura Veteris Testa-
menti future prospiciens in anteriora se extendit, triplicem Christi praenuntians
adventum; vel primum, qui occultus fuit et humilis, et jam nobis est praeteritus;
vel secundum, qui praesens quotidie a sanctis intimus sentitur et dulcis; vel
tertium, qui manifestus et terribilis in fine temporum exspectatur." Tractatus
de peregrinante civitate Dei 1, in PL 204:259c; cited (with a misprint: "pro-
scipiens" for "prospiciens") by Pere de Lubac in Exegese Medihvale, 2:621, n.4.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Christ was once more to be externally present in the world, as its
Now such a three-part division of history as this may well have
been Langland's point of departure in dividing the greater part of his
poem into a Vita de Dowel, Vita de Dobet, and Vita de Dobest. It at
least forms a helpful frame of reference for the discussion of this
structural problem. Important features of this scheme are that it in-
volves no mystical withdrawal from the world, and that in its ana-
gogical term, the third coming of Christ, it has distinctly social, even
political, implications. The reunion of all the faithful with God must
involve some consideration of the way men unite with one another in
Since the Vita de Dowel is clearly concerned with the right order-
ing of our lives in love, we might conclude that Langland is closer to
those theologians who place the tropological before the allegorical
sense, in their emergence from the literal. This position is defensible,
but, since Langland's relationship to his intellectual background is
always indirect and idiosyncratic, we might test this proposition more
closely. Again and again in Piers Plowman our will's movement
toward good works is seen to imply or even to reenict the central
events of sacred history, the Incarnation and the Redemption. Lady
Holy Church tells us that the heart's tendency toward good works is
the counterpart of God's overflowing Love (which is His Son) com-
ing down to alloy Himself with earth. When the soul resists the temp-
tations of the devil, Piers takes up the second stake of the Trinity,
which was there waiting for him, and humanity is joined to Godhead.
What is implied or reenacted in each of these events must precede
them, both logically and chronologically. The progress through
"Dowel" to the vision of the Redemption in "Dobet" is, as I sug-
gested earlier, a tracing back of Langland's vision of individual and
social goodness to its source and premise in the Redemption. A theo-
logian like Saint Bonaventure might call it a reduction of tropology to
allegory. So the logical order of the three terms in Langland's mind
seems to place allegory before tropology, even though the form of his
poem reverses them.
The reduction can be analyzed in terms of Piers's roles in Passus
XVI and Passus XVIII of the B-text. In the first, which completes
the transition from "Dowel" to "Dobet," Piers is seen within man,
making the decisive move in defense of the Tree of Charity against
The Social Dimension
the attacks of the Devil. This is the realm of tropology, of the right
ordering of life helped by the grace of the Redemption. This scene
suddenly falls away to reveal the realm of allegory, the life of Christ;
and when we next see Piers in Passus XVIII he is Christ's human na-
ture. Passus XIX opens with a vision of the wounded Christ, who still
looks like Piers to Will:
"Is pis lesus Pe austere," quod I, "Pat lewes dide to depe?
Or is it Piers Pe Plowman? who peynted hym so rede?"
Quod Conscience and kneled Po, "Pise arn Piers armes,
Hise colours and his cote Armure; ac he Pat come so blody
Is crist wiJ his cros, conquerour of cristene."
Conscience then launches into yet another narration of Christ's life,
upon the pretext of Will's confusion about the names "Christ" and
"Jesus." Among other things Conscience points out the ultimate unity
of allegory and tropology in the person of Christ. In His life Christ
"did well" and "did better," and after His resurrection He taught "do-
In his Iuuentee Pis lesus at lewene feeste
Water into wyn turned, as holy writ teller.
And Pere bigan god of his grace to do wel:
For wyn is likned to lawe and lif holynesse,
And whan he was woxen moore, in his moder absence,
He made lame to lepe and yaf light to blynde
And fedde wik two fisshes and with fyue loues
Sore afyngred folk, mo Pan fyue Pousand.
Thus he confortede carefully and caught a gretter name
The which was dobet, where pat he wente.
[There follows an account of His death and resurrection and
appearances to the apostles.]
And whan kis dede was doon do best he ,ou3te,
And yaf Piers pardon, and power he grauntede hym,
Myght men to assoille of alle manere synnes,
To alle maner men mercy and for3ifnesse. .
(B.XIX.108-11, 124-29, 182-85)
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
The moral qualities in us gain their full meaning, as Do-well, Do-
better, and Do-best, from their previous embodiment in Christ, who
fought in Piers's arms, humana natural. This is the reduction or tracing
back of tropology to allegory. In Christ we see the synthesis of our
subjective moral life and the objective center of past history.
There is another such synthesis, implied by this first one, with its
historical or objective term in the future. It will be found in the re-
turn of Christ to the stage of history at the end of time. This is the
realm of anagogy, admirably described by Pere de Lubac: "L'ana-
gogie realise done la perfection et de l'allegorie et de la tropologie, en
achevant leur synthese. Elle n'est ni 'objective', comme la premiere,
ni 'subjective', comme la second. Au-dela de cette division, elle
realise leur unite. Elle integre le sens total et definitif. Elle vise, dans
l'eternit6, la fusion du mystere et de la mystique. Autrement dit, la
reality eschatologique atteinte par l'anagogie est la reality 6ternelle,
en laquelle toute autre a sa consommation. Elle est dans son etat
definitif ce 'testamentum novum, quod est regnum caelorum'. Elle
constitute 'la Pl6nitude du Christ.' "42 If we recall the discussion of the
public, corporate role of Conscience, Reason, and other faculties we
would normally consider subjective, we can see a distinct resemblance
to Pere de Lubac's description of anagogy. The synthesis of subjec-
tive and objective which we see in a figure like Conscience counseling
the king on the public stage of history is attended by eschatological
imagery in his speech on the perfect society. Eschatology and anagogy
are the dominant modes of the last two Passtis where Langland once
again builds that society, now in terms which show most explicitly its
divine inspiration. Moral or tropological realities, properly subjective,
are brought out into the light of historical day. Piers's grain and his
plow and his oxen are now virtues and promptings of grace. History,
in this anagogic light, is foreshortened, once again reduced to its
image, somewhat as it is in the pageant witnessed by Dante in the
Earthly Paradise.43 We witness the founding of the Church, its cor-
ruption, and the disasters that will precede the Second Coming pass-
ing by us with the speed and transparent significance of thought-of
42. Exedgse Mddievale, 2:632-33.
43. Purgatorio 32. See Charles S. Singleton's discussion of the representa-
tion of history in this canto in Dante Studies, I: Commedia, Elements of Struc-
ture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 45-60.
The Social Dimension
There are several subtle touches in this narrative; for instance, the
ease with which Piers slides from his identity with Christ to his iden-
tity with Peter. The sacramental relationship between Christ and His
vicar is nicely rendered by giving them the same visible humana
natural. When Piers and Grace establish the institutional Church we
hear him speak in familiar tones:
"Ayeins bi greynes," quod Grace, "bigynne, for to ripe,
Ordeigne Pee an house, Piers, to herberwe Inne bi comes."
"By god! Grace," quod Piers, "ye moten gyue tymber,
And ordeyne Pat house er ye hennes wende."
And Grace gaf hym Pe cros, wib be garland of Pornes,
That crist vpon Caluarie for mankynde on pyned.
And of his baptisme and blood Pat he bledde on roode
He made a manere morter, and mercy it highte.
And berwib Grace bigan to make a good foundement,
And watlede it and walled it wib hise peynes and his passion;
And of al holy writ he made a roof after;
And called bat house vnitee, holy chirche on english.
When Piers speaks with such rough practicality to Grace we recog-
nize the hurried, efficient foreman of the half-acre. We recognize, too,
for the first time, that these tones are perfectly appropriate to the
bluff, impulsive fisherman of the Gospels. The practical tone of Piers's
request is carried through the building of Unity in a particularly sharp
illustration of Langland's technique in writing explicit allegory. The
gifts of grace are perfectly balanced-half-line for half-line-with the
concrete details of the building trade. Mercy is a mortar; Grace is a
"foundement"; Holy Writ is a roof; and Christ's pains and passions
wattle and wall the barn. And, in the synthetic, anagogic manner of
this last part of the poem, the sign and the thing signified are equally
present to us.
This new dimension is also seen in those episodes which most
clearly recall early episodes in the poem. When Grace gives "ech man
a grace to gide wib hymseluen" (B.XIX.227), following Saint Paul
on the "divisions of grace" (1 Cor. 12:4), we are witnessing again
Piers's assignment of tasks on the half-acre (B.VI.3ff.). When Con-
science calls in Kind with his pestilences and his lieutenants "Deeb"
and "Elde," and then relents out of pity (B.XX.76-108), we recall
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Piers's dealings with Hunger (B.VI.171-80, 199-201). We might call
the early scenes, and even the whole Visio, the "literal" or historical
portion of Piers Plowman. Scenes like those we have mentioned in
the Visio are full of implicit meaning which becomes explicit in their
reenactment in the Vita de Dobest. In both places they are presenta-
tions of social, historical reality, but in the second this reality is shot
through with a higher meaning as time touches that eternity which is
its consummation. This coming together of anagogy and history after
the fusion of the two levels of meaning-allegory and tropology-
that lie between them is the eschatological reality of which Pere de
Why, then, does the poem not end in triumph? Even without ref-
erence to anagogy and similar concepts, the reader might expect this
of a last section called Vita de Dobest. To answer this question we
must return to what we said early in the chapter about the disparity
between the logic of Langland's social vision and its emotional aspira-
tions. When Langland spoke of the perfection of society and the
emergence as corporate entities of the best qualities of individual men,
he did so in the terms of a popular political philosophy which had
conferred a new value upon the world and its institutions. The promi-
nent role played by a new, ultimate king shows the secular character
of his ideal, just as it does in Dante. He is more traditional than
Dante, however, in tracing this ideal back not to Rome, but to Christ.
This is particularly clear in the grammatical analogy of Conscience,
where the Incarnation is the nexus of the political and divine orders.
Langland cannot finally envision the perfection of the secular order
in any other way than in its end. For him there is no earthly paradise.
The Earthly City must yield to the City of God. Saint Augustine, view-
ing from afar the collapse of the Roman Empire, could contemplate
this truth with equanimity. Langland, in the midst of a collapsing so-
ciety in whose old ideals he believed passionately, can contemplate it
only with dismay and pain. In the centuries since Augustine wrote,
human society had given itself a new rationale, a new way of judging
itself on its own terms. If the judgment was harsh, as Langland's was,
it was still, for a man like him, a judgment which issued in a zeal for
reform of the secular order, not a mystic's contemptuous dismissal
of it.44 So when time and time's creatures must pass away before the
44. On this shift in the attitude toward the world and its reflection in Mid-
dle English literature, see Donald Howard, The Three Temptations (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1965).
The Social Dimension
glory of the returning Savior, the sense of triumph could well be hard
to sustain. After all, the only secular manifestations of the Second
Coming are pestilence, destruction, the failure of Life, and the
scourges of Kind.
When forced to the bitter conclusion of his divided attitude toward
the world, Langland does not evade it. Instead, he dramatizes it in
the most marvelous way. The army of Kind is called in to help Con-
science, and, as it pursues Life, proves to be distressingly indifferent
to obstacles in its path:
And Elde after hym; and ouer myn heed yede
And made me balled before and bare on Pe croune;
So harde he yede ouer myn heed it wole be sene euere.
"Sire yuele ytau3t Elde!" quod I, "vnhende go wib be!
Sip whanne was Pe wey ouer mennes heddes?
Haddestow be hende," quod I, "Pow oldest haue asked leeue."
"Ye, leue, lurdeyn?" quod he, and leyde on me wib Age,
And hitte me vnder be ere; vnnebe may ich here.
He buffetted me about be moub and bette out my wangteep;
And gyued me in goutes: I may no3t goon at large.
And of be wo Pat I was Inne my wif hadde rube
And wisshed ful witterly Pat I were in heuene.
For be lyme Pat she loued me fore and leef was to feele
On nyghtes namely, whan we naked were,
I ne myghte in no manere maken it at hir will,
So Elde and heo hadden it forbeten.
And as I seet in bis sorwe I sau3 how kynde passed
And deep drogh nei3 me; for drede gan I quake,
And cryde to kynde: "out of care me brynge!"
The passage is funny, pathetic, and chilling at the same time. To
grasp its difficult irony is to grasp the complexity of Langland's atti-
tude toward the world. When the dreamer is struck by Kind's lieu-
tenant, who has been called in to fight Antichrist, his response, in
effect, is, "Say, what is this? I'm on your side!" There is no question
of rising to the superiority of contemptus mundi. He is too intimately
involved in this collapse. As Bloomfield points out, "the attacks of
Antichrist upon the Church are a kind of correlative to the progress
62 Piers Plowman and the Image of God
of death within him,"45 and, we might add, so are the counterattacks
of Kind's army. The last fruition of the Incarnation in history seems
to be the destruction of the very world on which it conferred so in-
tense a value. The last fruits of Will's unflinching search for the home
of Do-well in the world seem to be the humiliations of old age and
the awful presence of death.
When Unity collapses, Conscience must leave it and become once
again a pilgrim. The stable order in which he can come forth in his
corporate aspect has dissolved, and he must once more retreat to his
individual, internal aspect. His departure from Unity is his return to
the individual heart of Will the dreamer, and at the same time, the
return of Will to consciousness: "And sippe he gradde after Grace
til I gan awake" (B.XX.386). The two of them will finish their search
together, with their goal the same, but its shape unknown. One might
even surmise that in that uncertainty there is an element of relief.
45. Apocalypse, p. 16.
4. Learning and Grace
CERTAINLY the most confused portion of Piers Plowman is the Vita
de Dowel, in which Will makes his progress through a succession of
internal faculties to that innermost point where he confronts Anima
and witnesses the Redemption. Langland was brought to a standstill
in this section. The A-text breaks off inconclusively in Passus XI (i.e.,
B.X). The B-text resumes after a lapse of some years and pushes on
to Dobet, but still must undergo extensive revision in the C-text. Even
the final version is marred by wild digressions and a remaining con-
fusion of purpose.
The issues that cause all this trouble are, mainly, those of the life
of the intellect and its relation to man's salvation. Langland's age was
characterized by a tendency to distinguish sharply between learning
and the more obviously religious aspects of spiritual life, denying to
the first a direct relevance to salvation and imbuing the second with
an emotional mysticism. This distinction is entertained in Langland's
poem but it is specifically rejected in the speech of Imaginatif in
Passus XII. Because Langland does try to maintain the connection
between the two kinds of interior life and give a spiritual value to
learning, the background of his thought is more likely to be found in
treatises on learning such as The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Vic-
tor, De Reductione Artium of Saint Bonaventure, and the allegorical
Anticlaudian of Alain de Lille, than in the more single-minded mysti-
cism of Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection or The Cloud of Unknow-
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Langland's most general complaint against the men of learning in
his own time is that they sell their talents for personal profit. Why
this is wrong Langland explains in an odd listing of the four elements:
Ac to bugge water ne wynd ne wit ne fir Pe ferpe,
Thise four be fader of heuene made to bis foold in commune;
Thise ben trupes tresores trewe folk to helpe,
That neuere shul wexe ne wanye wipouten god hymselue.
In C he develops these lines into a more specific condemnation of the
For hit is symonye, to sulle that send is of grace;
That is, witt and water, wynd, and fuyr the further,
These four sholden be fre to alle folk that hit nedeth.
The mention of simony and grace recalls C's modification of the
passage on Sir Inwit. C called Inwit "godes owen good, hus grace and
hus tresoure" where B had been more careful, placing Inwit "after
be grace of god" (C.XI.175; B.IX.60). We might also recall B's de-
scription of speech, which is wit's expression, as the "spire of
grace / And goddes gleman and a game of heuene" (B.IX.103-4).
To sell speech or wit is to bind what should be a type or symbol of
the infinite to a finite, unworthy end. It is to hinder the free exu-
berance of God playing through His creation. It is, in fact, something
like the desecration of a sacrament. One of the leading reproaches
against Lady Meed is that "Clergie and coueitise she couple togidres"
(B.III.165). The results of this unholy marriage are best exemplified
in the gluttonous friar-master of Passus XIII.
There is another, subtler kind of "coueitise" that can be associated
with learning. This is the coueitise of learning itself, for its own sake,
forgetting its status as a means of reaching God, or, more precisely,
as a symbolic imitation and invocation of divine Wisdom. Here, as
elsewhere, we are tempted to live by man's lie rather than God's
truth. This is the fault Study and Anima both refer to when they
warn the dreamer "non plus sapere quam oportet sapere" (B.X.121;
B.XV.69; cf. Rom. 12:3). The counsel not to try to know more than
we should, though, carries with it its own temptation; for we can
Learning and Grace
misinterpret it to urge a contempt for learning. Will succumbs to this
in his outbursts of anti-intellectualism in Passiis X and XI. The dif-
ficult point to remember is that the counsel of Study and Anima has
as its obverse the notion that it is very good indeed to try to know
all that we should know. There is, in fact, a salutary humility to be
gained in the experience of being brought up against the limits of
our knowledge, the point beyond which we cannot seek to know,
where we must patiently wait to be told. "To se much and suffre
moore, certes is dowel!" (B.XI.412).
Intellectualism, pro- and anti-, is thus basically ambivalent. As was
the case with Lady Meed, the ambivalence of value is rendered by an
ambivalence of the character embodying that value. Dame Study, the
domineering wife of Wit, describes and exemplifies in her person the
virtue of studiositas and the opposed though complementary vice of
curiositas.1 On the one hand, she is stern in her condemnation of an
irreverent approach to intellectual matters; on the other, she is suscep-
tible to flattery, relenting immediately to the dreamer's "mekenesse
... and ... mylde speche" (B.X.152). She condemns those whose
curiosity about God's ways with men leads them and those who hear
them into skepticism:
Swiche motyues Pei meue, Pise maistres in hir glorie,
And maken men in mys bileue Pat muse on hire words.
Ymaginatif herafterward shal answer to you're purpose.
Austyn to swiche Argueres he teller ]is teme:
Non plus sapere quam oportet.
For alle Pat wilneb to wite be whyes of god almy3ty,
I wolde his ei3e were in his ers and his hele after."
Although she clearly states the proper intellectual humility of studio-
sitas, Dame Study does not simply personify this virtue. Instead, she
personifies the intellectual activity that this virtue should govern. As
such she is ambivalent and, by the end of her second speech, she can
slide into the opposed vice of curiositas. After condemning alchemy
1. Common terms in medieval discussions of virtues. See, for example,
Saint Thomas, Summa Theologiae, 2-2.166, 167.
2. The lines about "Ymaginatif" are not in A. Langland had not thought
his way through to the solutions offered by this personification in B.XII.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
and astronomy and the like as obstacles to "Dowel," she confesses
(or boasts): "Alle Pise Sciences I myself sotilede and ordeynede, /
Founded hem forest folk to deceyue" (B.X.220-21).
An interesting parallel to Study's double nature is to be found in
Hunger, the personification called in by Piers to discipline the loafers
on his half-acre (B.VI.171ff.). Hunger knocks some of the fat off
them, and has everyone working hard to avoid his attacks. In the
course of his stay he gives Piers some very good advice on work and
moderation. When Piers suggests that Hunger might leave now that
he has accomplished his purpose, Hunger asks for a meal. Piers gives
him what humble fare his workers can bring:
Hunger eet pis in haste and axed after moore.
Thanne was folk fayn and fedde hunger wib be beste;
Wip good Ale as Gloton ta3te bei garte hym to slepe.
Like Study, Hunger practically turns into his own opposite before he
leaves the poem. Hunger and Study are both disciplines. Hunger
forces the irresponsible loafers to get to work as they should. Study
tames the irresponsible play of the intellect by subjecting it to the de-
mands of different kinds of learning and crafts; this is the point of her
rebuke to Wit. But the full success of the industry that Hunger in-
spires brings with it a reversion to the sorry condition he was called
upon to cure; and the full mastery of the disciplines of Study makes
the intellect capable of subtler and more dangerous irresponsibilities.
To adopt Donaldson's remarks on another character, each of these
personifications is "an entity with extension in two directions, while a
human being is an entity with extension in an infinite number of di-
rections. One does not ordinarily label each of the various extensions
of a man, but one may of a personification."3 The dialectic I have
stated discursively here is just such a labeling of what Study and Hun-
ger embody poetically.
The dangers of intellectualism were, of course, always of concern
to theologians. Saint Augustine and others gave grudging approval to
secular learning, but only as an aid to the study of the Bible. The
3. Donaldson, C-Text, p. 174, referring to Recklessness in his expanded
role in C.
Learning and Grace
patristic rationalization of learning was, as E. R. Curtius tells us, "that
Greek learning was established by God: the Christian teacher needed
it in order to understand the Scriptures." There were allegorical read-
ings of Scripture to support this. For instance, Saint Augustine said
that just as the Israelites took gold and silver vessels with them when
they went out of Egypt (Exod. 3:22 and 12:35), so Christians must
rid pagan learning of what is pernicious so that they can put it to the
service of truth.4 Cassiodorus, in his Institutiones divinarum et secu-
larium litteratum, went so far as to argue that the seeds of the pagan
liberal arts are to be found in God's wisdom and in Scripture, and
that, in dim antiquity, the Greeks actually found them there. He
quotes Psalm 19:1-4 (Authorized Version): "The heavens declare
the glory of God. There is no speech nor language where their
voice is not heard their words are gone out through all the
world. ." This means, allegorically, that "the Old Testament was
known to all peoples." Thus, from the Old Testament, "the pagans
could learn all the arts of rhetoric and reduce them to a system"!5
The seven liberal arts, composed of the trivium-grammar, dialec-
tic or logic, and rhetoric-and the quadrivium-music, arithmetic,
geometry, and astronomy-formed the basis of medieval education;
and, by such arguments as those of Cassiodorus, they were not only
rendered innocuous but were positively sanctified by their association
with Scripture. This association was only beginning to be called into
question in Langland's time, when secular learning seemed ready to
trade its adopted sanctity for greater autonomy. The older tradition is
clearly reflected in Study's directions to the dreamer:
"I shal kenne bee to my Cosyn Pat Clergie is hoten.
He hap wedded a wif wipInne Pise woukes six,
Is sib to be seuen art3, bat Scripture is nempned.
They two, as I hope, after my bisechyng,
Shullen wissen bee to dowel, I dar wel vndertake."
"Clergye," of course, means "Learning," and it is important not to
confuse it with the modem meaning of "clergy." However, we should
also realize the inadequacy of "Learning" to render the full sense of
the Middle English word; for there is in "Clergye" a connotation of
4. Curtius, European Literature, pp. 39, 40.
5. Ibid., p. 41. For the passages in Cassiodorus see PL 70:19-21.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
holiness, almost a sacramental character, that any modern rendering
of its denotation must lack.6 We are no longer accustomed to think
of Learning as married to the inspired word of God. The total integra-
tion of man's religious, intellectual, and craftsmanlike efforts which
this marriage implies is impressively demonstrated in Study's list of
"So shaltow come to Clergie Pat kan many wittes.
Seye hym Pis signe: I sette hym to Scole,
And Pat I grete wel his wif, for I wroot hire be bible,
And sette hire to Sapience and to be Sauter glosed.
Logyk I learned hire, and al be lawe after,
And alle be Musons in Musik I made hire to knowe.
Plato be poete, I putte hym first to boke;
Aristotle and opere mo to argue I tau3te;
Grammer for girles I garte first write,
And bette hem wib a baleys but if Pei wolde lerne.
Of alle kynne craftes I contreued tooles,
Of Carpenters and kerueres; I kenned first Masons
And learned hem leuel and lyne bou3 I loke dymme."
A precedent for this more extensive list of arts can be found in The
Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor, where we find the seven "me-
chanical arts"-fabric making, armament, commerce, and the like-
integrated into a system which includes theology, physics, and the
seven liberal arts. The system is traced back as a whole directly to
the divine Wisdom, and its study is intended "to restore within us the
divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his
Study's discussion of Theology shows her awareness of this final
goal which lies just beyond her grasp:
6. Erzgriber, William Langlands Piers Plowman, p. 122, says that Clergy
represents spiritual learning, going back to the Church Fathers, while Study
represents natural learning; but this squares neither with Study's claim that
she taught Scripture nor with Clergy's acknowledgment of the seven liberal
arts as his "sons," and of the limits of his knowledge (B.XIII.119-30; C.XVI.
7. Didascalicon 2.1, trans. Taylor, p. 61. For a list of all the branches of
study, see 3.1, p. 82.
Learning and Grace
"Ac Theologie hap tened me ten score tymes;
The moore I muse Perlnne be mystier it semeb,
And be depper I deuyned be derker me bou3te.
It is no Science forsobe for to sotile Inne;
Ne were be loue Pat lipb erinne a well lewed Pyng it were.
Ac for it letep best bi loue I loue it be bettre,
For bere Pat loue is ledere lakkeb neuere grace.
Loke Pow loue lelly if Pee like dowel,
For dobet and dobest ben drawen of loues scole.
Forbi loke Pow louye as long as Pow durest,
For is no science vnder sonne so souereyn for be soule."
The arts and learning finally resolve themselves into love, which goes
beyond their reach into mystery. We have here a variation on the
theme of Lady Holy Church's speech. If we recall how love in that
speech is identified with Love, the Incarnate Christ, we can see in this
speech of Study's the logic of the transition from the Vita de Dowel
to the Vita de Dobet. For in this transition the dreamer advances
through the arts and learning to the point where they must yield in
confusion to the paradox of the Incarnation, a mystery of Love.
This sort of progress of the arts to their own confusion is a favorite
theme of medieval literature. Virgil's guidance of Dante to the
threshold of Paradise but not beyond is only the most celebrated ex-
ample. In Alain de Lille's Anticlaudian (ca. 1182-83), the Goddess
Natura sends Prudence, Phronesis (i.e., Wisdom), and Reason as
envoys to ask God's help in the creation of a perfect man. They are
equipped with a carriage built by the seven arts and drawn by the five
senses, but as they approach the throne of God Prudence and Phro-
nesis must leave the carriage and Reason behind, submitting to the
guidance of Theology and Faith. A description of the Blessed Virgin
in heaven, which was often excerpted and may have been used by
Dante, uses paradox to show the defeat of the arts in the mystery of
the Virgin Birth: "No longer do 'mother' and 'virgin' disagree, but
turn to kisses of peace, that strife of theirs shut out. Here Nature is
silent, Logic's force is banished, all of Rhetoric's authority falls, and
Reason totters."8 It is important to remember that this defeat of
8. Anticlaudian 5.9, in PL 210:538 B, C.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
learning does not deny learning its proper value. In Alain de Lille as
in Langland, it is learning that brings man to the brink of transcendent
vision. Paradox, after all, is eminently intellectual. It is a symbol of
the restless workings of the human mind engaged in study and con-
stantly subverting its own supposedly firm conclusions with new al-
ternatives. It is thought caught in motion. The Incarnation is a para-
dox brought forth into the objective order. It is the visible encounter
of God and man and an endorsement of the very intellectualism it
transcends, an idea best illustrated in the last canto of Dante's Para-
diso where the poet's efforts to comprehend the Incarnation are com-
pared to a geometer's efforts to square the circle.
The general tradition of divine illumination in which Langland
seems to participate grounds the works of the intellect in the Word
of God "who illumines every man who comes into the world" (John
1.9). Study confirms this when she says that love is the best of sci-
ences, and the proper ground of all the other sciences. So does Pa-
tience when, later in the poem, he says that Dowel is teaching and
loving, and gives as his directions thereto a riddle that engages the
intellect only to confuse it. Since to do well is to pursue the sciences
and arts to their foundation, the dreamer must move beyond Study to
Clergy and Scripture.
His argument with these two figures brings on the crisis that in-
terrupted the A-text and remains something of a muddle in B and C.
When the dreamer asks Clergy for his definitions of Do-well, Do-bet,
and Do-best, Clergy replies that Do-well is common belief in the
teachings of the Church; Do-bet is practicing what you preach; and
Do-best is boldly to blame the guilty, but only when you yourself are
guiltless (B.X.238-39, 257-60, 264-76). The importance and dif-
ficulty of this last condition are stressed so much that it seems it will
be fulfilled only when the apocalyptic king arrives to reform mon-
asteries and give a knock to the abbot of Abingdon. That passage,
which we have discussed and which C incorporates into Reason's
speech in the Visio, is intimately connected with Clergy's idea of the
value of learning in society. We see this in his description of what a
house of learning should be, and of what it is in these bad times which
call out for the reforms of the avenging king:
"For if heuene be on bis erbe, and ese to any soule,
It is in cloistre or in scole, by many skiles I fynde.
For in cloistre come no man to care ne to fi3te
Learning and Grace
But al is buxomnesse Pere and bokes, to rede and to lerne.
In scole bere is scorn but if a clerk wol lerne,
And great loue and likyng for ech loweb hym to other.
Ac now is Religion a rydere, a rennere by stretes,
A ledere of louedayes and a lond buggere,
A prikere on a palfrey fro place to Manere,
An heep of houndes at his ers as he a lord were."
R. E. Kaske has found a probable source for the lines about the
school as a heaven on earth in a saying attributed to Peter Damian:
"Si paradisus in hoc mundo est, in claustro vel in scholis est."9 Mor-
ton Bloomfield claims a more general relevance for this monastic no-
tion of the "Paradisus claustralis," the earthly paradise which is "the
image of the heavenly paradise, and [whose] inhabitants are similarly
angels or beatified souls. Earthly paradise is also an image of the pure
soul, the paradise within perhaps not happier but at least as happy
as the eternal one."'0 Here, as in the political ideas we discussed in
the last chapter, the activities of the human mind find their expres-
sion and image in an institution, a corporate entity. Intellectual in-
coherence is thus a corollary of institutional incoherence now that
"Religion [is] a rydere, a rennere by stretes."
Learning is always a corporate enterprise, undertaken by the "com-
munity of scholars." The cooperation of minds in pursuit of truth is
a natural model for the ideal state where political man cooperates
with his fellows in pursuing other aspects of truth. So Clergy's aspira-
tions have a social dimension, seeking their fruition in the advent of
that apocalyptic king. It is understandable that the dreamer's tenta-
tive summary of Clergy's lesson should lean too far in the political
direction: "'Thanne is dowel and dobet,' quod I, 'dominus and
knySthode?'" (B.X.336). Scripture's rebuke of the dreamer, how-
ever, seems to go beyond his distortion and to threaten the very sub-
stance of Clergy's teaching. We here begin that series of contradic-
tions that makes Passis X and XI so hard to follow.
Scripture denies that political structures have any relevance to sal-
9. "Langland and the Paradisus Claustralis," Modern Language Notes 72
(1957):482. The saying is attributed to "Petrus Ravennus" (probably Peter
Damian) by Benvenuto da Imola in his commentary on Dante.
10. Apocalypse, p. 47.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
"I nel no3t scorne," quod Scripture; "but scryueynes lye,
Kynghod and kny3thod, for au3t I kan awayte,
Helped no3t to heueneward at oone yeris ende,
Ne richesse ne rentes ne Reautee of lordes.
Poule preuep it impossible, riche men in heuene;
Salomon seib also Pat siluer is worst to louye."
Scripture introduces here the theme of patient poverty which will
dominate subsequent passages of the Vita de Dowel. Now patient
poverty as an ideal is certainly not incompatible with the program of
Clergy, but the dismissal of "Kynghod" and "kny3thod" does seem
to be. Scripture's concept of salvation is more radical and individual
than Clergy's. It makes no allowance for the beneficent influence of
institutions. Yet the two ideals depend on each other. If learning is
to be authentic, it must remain in touch with its biblical inspiration.
If the word of God is to maintain its presence in the world, it must
work through the institutions of the Earthly City which foster and
protect learning, even though its message is, in great part, a rejection
of these institutions as repositories of real value. Will's inability to
deal with this apparent contradiction shows plainly in his responses
to both his instructors.
When Clergy gives his definitions of the three Do's, Will's response
is reductive. He identifies Do-well and Do-bet with dominus and
knighthood, seizing on the political superstructure instead of the heart
of Clergy's ideal vision, the school whose pursuit of truth in love is a
heaven on earth. For Clergy, as for Conscience in his grammatical
analogy, dominus and knighthood are not valuable in themselves but
only in so far as they are the symbol of "god, the ground of al, a
graciouse antecedent" (C.IV.356). As Thought has also explained,
the king is chosen to protect the Church, which includes the institu-
tions of Clergy and which is the more perfect reflection of the divine
order. When Scripture gives her guide to salvation, with its disdain
for institutions and its emphasis on the individual, Will's response is
likewise reductive. Scripture has denied that the rich have "Eritage
in heuene" as do the patient poor. They enter it not by right but only
by "rupe and grace."
"Contra!" quod I, "by crist! Pat kan I wiPseye,
And preuen it by be pistel Pat Peter is nempned:
That is baptized beb saaf, be he riche or pouere."
Learning and Grace
Just as he pushed Clergy's institutionalism beyond Clergy's substan-
tive intentions, so now the dreamer pushes Scripture's individualism
beyond her intentions. Where we might expect his "contra" to be a
defense of the goodness of wealth rightly used, the dreamer argues
instead for the total irrelevance of any good works to salvation. If the
relationship of the individual man to God is a mystery of grace which
is not signified by public institutions, then perhaps it is not signified
even by the good works and virtues which have consequence and
meaning in this world.
Most of the dreamer's subsequent speech is an attack on the value
of learning, but this seems to be part of a more general attack on the
value of good works. Langland considered learning to be one species
of good works, and he has his dreamer interpret Ecclesiastes 9:1-
"Sunt iusti atque sapientes; et opera eorum in manu dei sunt"-to
show the tenuous relationship of both to salvation (B.X.436-47).
And so the damnation of Aristotle and the salvation of the good thief
are adduced to show the doubtful relevance of good works in a
scheme of salvation that seems to have been determined "In ]e
legend of lif long er I were" (B.X.381). All human endeavor is
invalidated by the economy of grace, and the least learned of men
gain salvation with a prayer:
Ne none sonner saued, ne sadder of bileue,
Than Plowmen and pastours and pouere commune laborers,
Souteres and shepherdes; swiche lewed luttes
Percent wi) a Paternoster Pe paleys of heuene
And passen Purgatorie penauncelees at hir hennes partyng
Into Pe parfit blisse of Paradis for hir pure bileue,
That inparfitly here knewe and ek lyuede.
These appealing lines are true in part, and herein lies the complica-
tion, because they form the conclusion of an argument the poem will
Scripture rejects the argument immediately and her rejection drives
the dreamer "for wo and wrake of hir speche" (B.XI.4) into a dream
within a dream. This may, paradoxically, cloak events in Langland's
real life when he turned from dreaming and from writing after frustra-
tion with the A-text. The obscurity of Passus XI is doubly tantalizing
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
because one feels that here more than elsewhere in the poem Lang-
land registers the confusion engendered by the theological contro-
versies of his day. It is difficult to say just what he registers and how,
for at least two reasons other than his evasive presentation. First, "the
intellectual life of the period," according to one of its leading his-
torians, "is everywhere still largely veiled in mists; but in England
the obscurity is nearer to fog."" The second reason, an intrinsic one,
is that Langland does not have Dante's taste for systematic exposi-
tion. He prefers instead to record his vivid impressions of the intellec-
tual life around him in a poetically consistent order not traceable to
Augustine or Bonaventure or Bradwardine or Ockham.
Let us consider, first, two passages already summarized from
Passus X, in which Will calls into question the value of knowledge
and good works. In the first, Will says that Scripture contains "tales"
of man's predestination, suggesting
Pat I man maad was, and my name yentred
In be legend of lif long er I were,
Or ellis vnwriten for wikkednesse as holy writ witnesseJ:
Nemo ascendit ad celum nisi qui de celo descendit.
According to this view, man's good works and bad works are de-
termined by God's foreknowledge of them. This foreknowledge is at-
tested by the prophets in Scripture, and the problem of predestination
was closely connected in the fourteenth century with "any serious dis-
cussion of the authority and infallibility of Scripture."'3 The doctrine
11. Gordon Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1957), p. 1. The suggestion that the inner dream was a
veiled autobiography of the years between the A- and B-texts was made by
R. W. Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind, pp. 135-36. Wittig suggests that
"the forty-five years Will sees himself disport in the 'londe of Longynge' need
not be thought of as actually elapsing while Will is dreaming. .. The fore-
shortened time suggests rather that Langland is emphasizing a kind of retro-
spective re-evaluation. Langland wishes to summarize dramatically all
that is wrong with Will's life" ("Inward Journey," p. 245). Wittig generally
regards the questions of predestination, grace, and merit as trivial evasions on
Will's part of his clear moral duty. As my subsequent discussion will show, I
believe Langland took these matters more seriously, and this is probably my
most important difference with Wittig on this part of the poem.
12. The Latin text is John 3:13.
13. W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 131. This problem of "future
Learning and Grace
is grim enough, certainly, but it does preserve the significance of good
and bad works in the scheme of salvation, even if it removes them
from the scope of free will. Determinism is, if nothing else, thor-
oughly intelligible. The second passage carries the train of thought
further, to an unexpected conclusion:
That Salomon seip I trowe be soop and certain of vs alle:
Sunt iusti atque sapientes, & opera eorum in manu dei sunt &c.
Ther are witty and wel libbynge ac hire werkes ben yhudde
In be hondes of almy3ty god, and he woot be sobe
Wher for loue a man worp allowed Pere and hise lele werkes,
Or ellis for his yuel will and enuye of herte,
And be allowed as he lyued so; for by lupere men knowe ]be
And wherby wiste men which is whit if alle Pynge blak were,
And who were a good man but if Per were som sherewe?
Forki lyue we fork wik lipere men; I leue fewe ben goode,
For quant oportet vient en place yl nyad que pati.
And he Pat may al amende haue mercy on vs alle,
For soPest word Pat euer god seide was ko he seide Nemo bonus.
The most striking development here is that Will is no longer talking
about who will be saved and who will be damned. He restricts him-
self to the saved and contrasts the reasons for their salvation. Some
might be saved because of their good works. Others might be saved
because of, or despite, their wickedness. Middle English "for" (1.
440) is ambiguous, and Langland may be exploiting its ambiguity.
"Despite" is the gloss required by our sense of the limits of Christian
heterodoxy, but "because of" seems favored by the parallel structure
(". for loue for his yuel will ."). Either way the doctrine
is unsettling. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by the fact
that Will's examples-Mary Magdalen, David, the good thief, and
others-repented before they died. In the dramatic context of the
poem Will misuses these examples by de-emphasizing this detail.
Langland the poet allows him to do so and allows us to see it. What
contingents" is also discussed by Leff in Bradwardine, passim, and in Richard
Fitzralph, Commentator of the Sentences (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1963), pp. 39ff.; and by Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 3:37-39,
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Will comes up with is a complete moral indeterminism as regards sal-
vation. God might, in His absolute freedom, save men "for" their
very wickedness because it serves as a foil for others' goodness. Salva-
tion is simply a function of His pleasure in a kind of moral chiaro-
scuro. No wonder Will throws up his hands and dismisses learning
which Christ commended but little, settling instead for the simple
faith which pierces "wib a Paternoster be paleys of heuene."
What results, however, is not a life of simple virtue, but a carrying
into practice of Will's theoretical indeterminism. The inner dream,
which seems to cloak the poet's wayward waking life, is governed by
Fortune, the personification of all that is random and unintelligible to
the Middle Ages:
A merueillous metels mette me Panne,
For I was rauysshed ri3t bere; Fortune me fette
And into be lond of longynge and loue she me brou3te
And in a Mirour Pat hi3te middelerbe she made me biholde.
Sipen she seide to me, "here my3tow se wondres
And knowe Pat Pow coueitest and come Perto paraunter."
The "lond of longynge and loue" suggests Saint Bernard's regio
dissimilitudinis where man wanders in his estrangement from God.
The "Mirour bat hi3te middelerpe" parodies a favorite title for both
mystical and encyclopedic works of the Middle Ages. Instead of a
Speculum Historiale or a Speculum Charitatis it is a Speculum Hujus
Mundi. Instead of mirroring God in his creation as these other Specula
do, it simply mirrors man in his cupidity, to the exclusion of any-
thing higher.14 The point is that if God is so unintelligible in His deal-
ings with man, if His creation is so devoid of any order, including the
ethical, then His creation simply cannot mirror Him.
Let us turn now to the learned controversies o Langland's day
and see if we can trace his dilemma to some of its sources. The cen-
14. On the regio dissimilitudinis, see Gilson, The Mystical Theology of
Saint Bernard, pp. 45-46; Pierre Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin
dans la tradition litteraire: Antecedents et Posterite (Paris: Itudes Augustin-
iennes, 1963), pp. 278-88, 623-40; applications to Piers Plowman are found
in Vasta, Spiritual Basis, pp. 76-77, and Wittig, pp. 232-35. Helmut Maisack,
William Langlands Verhiltnis zum Zisterziensischen Monchtum (Balingen: n.p.,
1953), p. 40, links the "myroure that hi3t Mydlerd" to the speculum tradition.
See, also, Wittig, pp. 238-41.
tral fact of intellectual life in the fourteenth century was the break
between theology and philosophy, a break which, in Langland's terms,
could be called the divorce of Clergy and Scripture. The last great
synthesis, that of Thomas Aquinas, had allowed to each field a novel
degree of autonomy, but had insisted on their ultimate harmony. For
Thomas, the truths of reason were intelligible without reference to
the truths of revelation. The truths of revelation, if they exceeded
those of reason, still did not contradict them. Among the truths of
reason were those which pertained to ethics and the right ordering of
our lives. Now our good works could not of themselves merit the re-
ward of union with God. This depended on our possession of grace, a
freely bestowed gift. But once we possessed grace, we could discover
by our reason what acts would help us to grow in it and what would
cause us to lose it. Ethics, rationally evolved, was the way to the per-
fection of that human nature which exists as an idea in the creative
mind of God.15 It was the human share in the scheme of salvation, a
scheme to which God Himself was metaphysically bound.
And there was the rub. Can God be bound? The response of piety,
jealous of God's omnipotence, was no. If the intelligibility of creation
and of God's will for us was to be won only at the cost of His freedom,
then it had to be foregone. The first notable challenges to the con-
tinuity of human and divine minds came in 1277 with the condemna-
tions at Paris and Oxford of several Thomistic positions, on the
grounds that they subjected God to an Aristotelian determinism. At
the turn of the fourteenth century the Franciscan Duns Scotus at-
tacked the Thomistic notion of the analogy of being. Thomas had se-
cured our relation to God by comparing the reality, or being, of our
separate essences to the being of God which was His essence, and was
the source of all being in others. Scotus also rejected Thomas's method
of starting with sensible creation and moving by a chain of causes
back to God. True to the Augustinian and Bonaventurian tendencies
of his order, he made God's will the "measure of all that He did,"16
and made all that links man to God a matter of freely elected love on
both sides. This emphasis on will over intellect is certainly reflected
in Langland, as Willi Erzgriber has argued,17 but Scotus cannot qual-
ify as a definitive influence because he severed one more link which
15. Thomas's teaching on divine ideas was derived from Saint Augustine,
not from Aristotle, as Copleston notes in A History of Philosophy, 2:427.
16. Leff, Bradwardine, p. 7.
17. William Langlands Piers Plowman, pp. 190ff.
Learning and Grace
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Langland considered precious: the divine illumination of the intellect.
This was a break with Augustinianism, despite Scotus's claims to the
The discontinuity thus introduced between God and man was
nearly complete, and the work was finished by the thinker "who for
keenness of mind and ruthlessness surpassed all his contemporaries,"19
William of Ockham. Ockham's famous razor cut through all sorts of
continuities in the medieval world, on the general principle that there
are no real relations between things, only rational or logical ones.20
In this new universe of discrete particulars the universal concept lost
even the carefully restricted validity granted it by Thomism. An idea
like "man" or "human nature" no longer represented a real nature
common to two particular men; it represented no single idea in the
mind of God according to which He created them. It was simply a
term used to express our perception of similarities between men. No
binding, certain moral law, valid for all men, could be erected on
such a shaky foundation. In the terms of Will's complaint to Lady
Holy Church, man could have no "kynde knowyng" of "Dowel." The
moral law came to depend, for Ockham more than for Scotus, on the
absolutely free will of God operating without even the restraint of
divine ideas. In other words, God does not forbid one act and reward
another because they are wrong or right in themselves; rather, an act
is wrong or right because God forbids or rewards it.21
The denial of real relations between entities applied as well to the
relation of rational creatures to God. Ockham and his followers de-
nied the ontological status of grace as an essential constituent of
merit, saying that it was simply a name for the fact of God's accept-
ance of man.22 This, combined with the Ockhamists' insistence on the
18. See Gilson, Jean Duns Scot (Paris: J. Vrin, 1952), pp. 556-73, esp.
19. David Knowles, "A Characteristic of the Mental Climate of the Four-
teenth Century," in Melanges Offerts a lttienne Gilson (Paris and Toronto:
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and J. Vrin, 1959), p. 321.
20. Ockham's razor was the axiom entia non sunt multiplicanda extra neces-
sitatem, which he did not himself formulate, but which does accurately de-
scribe his practice. Ibid., p. 322.
21. Copleston suggests that this implies "the possibility of two ethics, the
moral order established by God but knowable only by revelation, and a pro-
visional and second-class natural and non-theological ethic worked out by the
human reason without revelation" (A History of Philosophy, 3:14).
22. "Item ex actibus meritoriis generatur habitus inclinans ad consimiles
actus, igitur sicut potest acceptare secundum actum elicitum mediante habitu:
ita primum et per consequens potest acceptare actum sine habitu naturalem
Learning and Grace
absolute power of God, had a dual consequence. On earth, man's
free will was given a fuller scope in that it could merit God's favor on
its own. But in heaven, on the other hand, God's absolute freedom
meant that He could choose at random those acts and those men who
would be pleasing to Him. The resulting indeterminism was at once
exhilarating and terrifying.
The emphasis in Ockham's own teaching, as Gordon Leff has
shown, was on the exhilarating extension of the free will's scope of
action, and here, as we shall see, Langland and he find common
grounds of hope. Ockham said that "merit is the cause sine qua non
of reward and grace" from God.23 This practically reversed the tradi-
tional priority whereby grace, a supernatural habit or quality of the
soul, was the condition sine qua non of merit. It meant that the act
of man's free will was the first step, the origin of merit, to which God
freely responded. But even in Ockham the corollary was to be found
that God could "condemn" a man "without any fault of his own."24
Or, more chillingly: "Grace and glory are two effects produced by
God; grace is prior because it is in the soul in its earthly life [in
viatore], and glory is posterior because it is in the final union with
God [in consummatione]. So God could confer grace and charity on
someone and not confer glory .. indeed, God can, in His absolute
power, confer charity on someone and then annihilate him."25 Now
Ockham did not think that God would act with such arbitrary tyranny,
sine actu infuso." Quaestiones et decisions in IV libros Sententiarum Petri
Lombardi 3, qu. 5 I (Lyons, 1495), cited and discussed in Leff, Bradwardine,
p. 196, n.2. I have compared Leff's quotations with a copy of Ockham's com-
mentary in the Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University. I have made
(and noted) a few minor corrections in the following citations.
23. "Sed meritum non est nisi causa sine qua non respect premii et gratie."
Quaestiones et decisions 4, qu. 1 E, quoted in Leff, Bradwardine, p. 204, n.1.
24. Cited in A. Pelzer, "Les 51 Articles de Guillaume Occam censures en
Avignon en 1326," Revue d'histoire ecclesiastique 18 (1922):253; and in Leff,
Bradwardine, p. 192, n.l.
25. ". gratia et gloria sunt duo effects product a deo; gratia est prior,
quare est in viatore, et gloria est posterior, quia est in consummatione, igitur
potest deus conferre alicui gratiam et caritatem et non conferre sibi gloriam
... non obstante quod conferat sibi gratiam ... viatori cuicumque potest deus
conferre gratiam et caritatem et statim post potest eum annihilare, et per
consequens potest sibi conferre gratiam et dispositionem et eum annihilare. ...
"Ideo dico ad istam conclusionem quod caritas nec quecunque alius
habitus necessitet deum ad dandum alicui vitam eternam; imo de potential
absolute potest alicui conferre caritatem et eum post annihilare" (Quaestiones
et decisions 3, qu. 5 E and H). Quoted in Leff, Bradwardine, p. 195, n.2. Leff
omits "deus" in its second occurrence and has "potest" for "post" in the last
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
but his cutting away of the certitudes that the Middle Ages had placed
between God and man gave a new emphasis to the fact that He could.
This emphasis was more nearly central to the thought of Ockham's
followers Robert Holkot and Adam of Woodham. Holkot said that
all merit came from the creature's conformity to divine law, but that
a creature could not be sure "that some particular law is ordained by
God, for God could allow man to be without any law just as He
does with beasts, if it pleased His will."26 Once again, there can be no
"kynde knowing" of "Dowel." God, said Holkot, could give grace to
a man and damn him. He could save a man in mortal sin, and thus
prove that "a man who loves God the less is loved by God the more."
Finally, "God can accept for eternal life all the natural acts of man,
and He can also make all free acts indifferent or non-meritorious."27
Adam of Woodham went so far as to say that God could allow grace
and mortal sin to exist in the same person.28 He found it even more
26. In citing Holkot I have consulted a reprint of the edition cited by Leff,
Robertus Holkot, In Quatuor Libros Sententiarum Quaestiones, Lugduni, 1518,
Unverinderte Nachdruck (Frankfurt, 1967), as well as another edition, Mag-
istri Roberti holkot Super quattuor libros sententiarum questions (Lyons,
1505), in the Beinecke Library. The first text cited follows, with Leff's readings
in brackets: ". omne meritum vel demeritum est ex hoc quod actus creature
est conformis vel difformis legi divine: ideo enim homo meretur: quia facit
sicut deus vult eum facere et ideo demeretur quia facit contrarium legi
divine, sed non est in potestate voluntatis create [creature] quod sibi aliqua lex
a deo ponatur, posset enim deus permittere hominem sine lege sibi data et
sine preceptis vel consiliis: sicut permittit permittedt] bestias: si voluntati sue
placeret" (1, qu. 1, art. 2 D). Quoted in Leff, Bradwardine, p. 219, n.l.
27. ". dico quod ista consequentia non valet: deus infundit charitatem
isti: vel auget seu [vel] conservat in isto scilicet a charitatem: et in b non
[et non b]: ergo magis diligit [diliget] a quam b: quia capio unum prescitum
[praescitum] ad mortem eternam existentem in gratia: et alium predestinatum
[praedestinatum] existentem in peccato mortali: istum plus diligit: manifestum
est. Secundo dico quod consequens non est inconveniens, videlicet quod
minus diligens deum plus diligatur a deo ." (1, qu. 4, art. 3 H). ". deus
potest acceptare ad vitam eternam omnes actus naturales alicuius hominis: et
facere omnes actus liberos atque indifferentes aut non meritorios ." (1, qu.
1, art. 4 [4D in Leff; I find no marginal D opposite this passage, lines 11-14
of art. 4]). Quoted in Leff, Bradwardine, p. 217, nn.2, 3. In the first passage
"predestinatum" means predestined for glory and "prescitum" means pre-
destined for damnation; both are common usages.
28. "Ad istud responded quod non dixi quod aliquis habens gratiam in-
creatam secundum quam deus secundum presented iustitiam acceptat ad vitam
eternam, possit cum hoc esse in culpa mortal de dei potential absolute sed
dictum est quod gratia informans non habet formalem repugnantiam ex natural
sua ad culpam mortalem et ideo dicendum quod non starent simul hec
duo: iste habet gratiam et iste peccat mortaliter, nec huic repugnat hec quod
dixi, scilicet quod gratia create non repugnat ex natural sua culpe mortali vel
Learning and Grace
difficult-Gordon Leff suggests he found it impossible-to establish
any link whatever between the human act and the divine response.
The human will can merit without grace, but "there can be an act not
meritorious and yet good in kind and nature."29 All this approaches
rather closely the skepticism of Will's rebuke to Scripture and seems
to sanction the wayward life of the inner dream.
This was a century of intellectual extremes, and so the reaction to
Ockhamist indeterminism was the bleak, total determinism of Thomas
Bradwardine. In De Causa Dei (ca. 1344) he "erected his system of
determinist theology which departs from orthodoxy in one direction
almost as clearly as do the 'Pelagians', whom he was attacking, in
another."30 He reinstated grace as a necessary cause of salvation, a
return to Augustinian orthodoxy from the position of the Ockhamists.
He went a good deal further, though, by making God a "senior part-
ner in all that concerns His creatures,"31 including the individual acts
of the human will by which man grows in grace or loses it. God be-
came the human will's "first and most immediate mover,"32 eliminat-
ing merit as previously understood. The freedom of the human will
consisted for Bradwardine in nothing more than its direct subjugation
to God's will, itself absolutely free.33 Though Bradwardine sought to
exclude the possibility, a French theologian was able to cite him,
some ten or twelve years after his death, as an authority for the doc-
trine that God's will can cause man to sin.34 Indeed, given Brad-
wardine's premises, the position is plausible. Another, more important
vessel of his influence in Langland's England was John Wyclif, whose
predestinarianism was, unlike Bradwardine's, partly metaphysical in
origin, but who paid him the tribute of the title "Doctor Profundus"
quod potest simul stare de dei potential absolute cum culpa mortali ."
(Super sententias 1, dis. 17, qu. 3). Cited from MSS in Leff, Bradwardine, p.
245, n.4. Note that "gratia increata" means the actual acceptance for salva-
tion of a soul by God; "gratia create" means the supernatural habit of grace
in the soul of one not yet saved, synonymous with "gratia informans."
29. "Licet non meritorium sed bonum ex genere et natural actus [sic]"
(Super sententias 1, dist. 17, qu. 1). Quoted in Leff, Bradwardine, p. 247, n.6.
30. M. D. Knowles, "The Censured Opinions of Uthred of Boldon," Pro-
ceedings of the British Academy 38 (1951): 308.
31. Leff, Bradwardine, p. 15.
32. Ibid., p. 95.
33. Ibid., pp. 91ff.
34. Pierre de Ceffons argued thus "in his highly Ockhamist sentences (Paris,
c. 1360)." J. A. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1961), p. 40. Cf. Leff, Bradwardine, pp. 95-96.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
and attacked his Ockhamist opponents under the same name, "Pela-
My sketch of these two opposed views of the human will, grace,
and salvation has been only a rough one. Indeed, it may be so rough
as to suggest that they had more in common than at issue. This seems
to have been Langland's view, as we see when he slides so easily from
one position to another in the long tirade of Passus X. Both schools
had rendered highly problematic the notion of the human will's coop-
eration with grace. Both took man's most vital concern, his salvation,
out of his control, and this included the control exercised by learning
and knowing the created order.
Historically, two complementary effects flowed from this loss of
control. The first was a remarkable development of logic and mathe-
matics, those studies which make the least claims to any truth beyond
their arbitrary premises.3 The second effect was the development of
mysticism. As is well known, the fourteenth century witnessed a
florescence of mystical writing in England, and one of its common
notes is a distrust of learning or knowledge. Julian of Norwich refers
to herself as "unlettered," and whatever the historical value of this
characterization, its significance as a rhetorical pose is unambiguous.
It is to such humble and unlettered ones that God grants the extraor-
dinary grace of His "showings," and the nonrational assurances that
"all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall
be well" as regards man's salvation.37 The author of The Cloud of
Unknowing calls on those who would advance to God to lay a "cloud
of forgetting" over all God's creation:
35. Robson discusses Wyclif's relation to Bradwardine on pp. 179-214; see
36. Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., Medieval Logic (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1952), p. 95, argues that the logic of this period has a great
deal in common with modern formal logic in the tradition of Whitehead and
Russell's Principia Mathematica. It is tempting to draw an analogy between
Langland's frequently expressed distrust of the friars' logic and the objections
of some modern humanists to the dominance of formal logic and linguistic
analysis in contemporary philosophy. The analogy has occurred (though with-
out reference to Piers Plowman) to David Knowles, The English Mystical Tra-
dition (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 42, and to James Crompton
in his review of Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester: Man-
chester University Press, 1967), Medium Aevum 38 (1969):102.
37. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ed. Grace Warrack, 13th
ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1949), pp. 3, 56. On the question of Julian's
literacy, see Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition, pp. 120-21.
Learning and Grace
Lift up Pin herte vnto God wib a meek steryng of loue; &
mene him-self, & none of his goodes. & Perto loke Pee lope to
Penk on ou3t bot on hym-self, so Pat nou3t worche in Pi witte
ne in Pi will bot only him-self. & do Pat in Pee is to for3ete
alle be creatures Pat euer God maad & Pe werkes of hem, so bat
Pi bou3t ne bi desire be not directed ne streche to any of hem,
neiper in general ne in special. Bot lat hem be, & take no kepe
... & bPerfore schap Pee to bide in bis derknes as long as bou
maist, euermore criing after him Pat bou louest; for 3if euer
shalt bou fele him or see him, as it may be here, it behouep
alweis be in bis cloude & in bis derknes.38
There is clearly no question here of earth being a "mirror" of God.
It can only be the mirror which Lady Fortune presents to Will. This
whole tendency of thought reveals a despair of reaching God by learn-
ing, for as Will puts it, those surest of salvation are "lewed luttes"
who "Percen wib a Paternoster be paleys of heuene." But the essen-
tial thing to remember about Langland is that this remark of Will's
elicits Scripture's strong rebuke. If Scripture is to be trusted, then
Langland rejects the mystical approach so typical of his day as a way
His reasons for doing so can be gathered from the events and char-
acters of the inner dream. He seems to have seen this mystical exalta-
tion of simplicity as a surrender to indeterminism and skepticism. Be-
cause of its purposely weak rational basis, such thinking could all too
easily turn from an emotional commitment to God to an equally emo-
tional libertinism. This is what actually happened in the contemporary
heresy of the "Free Spirit," which Leff links to Ockhamism and to
certain tendencies of the "Rhineland mysticism" of Meister Eckhart
and his school.40 It is possible Langland had this heresy in mind when
he led Will into his forty-five years of vaguely sketched vice in
the company of Fortune, Concupiscencia-Carnis, Coueytise-of-eyes,
38. Phyllis Hodgson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy
Counselling (London: Early English Text Society, 1944), pp. 16, 17. I have
omitted some editorial apparatus.
39. A point missed by Maisack, pp. 37-39, who interprets B.X.458ff. as
praise of Cistercian lay brothers.
40. See Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, pp. 259-407. The discussion there
restricts itself to Bavaria and the Lowland countries.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Pryde-of-parfyte-lyuynge, and Recklessness. The last-named apostle
of folly cites a poet named Plato in support of his way of life:
"Ye? recche Pee neuere," quod Rechelesnesse, stood fork in
"Folwe for bPat Fortune wole; Pow hast wel fer til Elde.
A man may stoupe tyme yno3 whan he shal tyne be crowne."
"Homo proponit," quod a poete, and Plato he hi3te,
"And Deus disponit," quod he; "lat god doon his will.
If true wol witness it be wel do Fortune to folwe
Concupiscencia carnis ne Coueitise of ei;es
Ne shal no3t greue Pee graiply, ne bigile Pee, but Pow wolt."
Here is fourteenth-century voluntarism at its most extreme, and it
could be derived from Bradwardine or Ockham, from the logicians or
the mystics, even though it would not fairly reflect their thought as a
whole. As Langland saw it, their arguments all tended finally to this
equation of the reverent formula "homo proponit, deus disponit" with
the less-than-reverent "carpe diem." The very term "truth," whose
dual reference had symbolized a pact of love and intelligibility be-
tween God and man, is here used to dissolve the pact. Our rewards
will come at random, because truth itself is random. The C-text puts
it more clearly: "Al that Treuthe a-tacheth and testifieth for goode, /
Thauh thei folwe that Fortune wole, no folie ich hit holde" (C.XII.
306-7). This sounds very much like some remarks of Holkot or Adam
of Woodham in its insistence on the extrinsic, de jure connection be-
tween man's works and God's rewards.
Having reached this nadir of skepticism, Will begins a process of
recovery, seeking to strike some sort of balance between the power of
God and the freedom of man. With age comes the recognition of the
falseness of Fortune and her friends the friars, and, by the logic of
dreams and of allegories, this recognition is embodied in the sudden
appearance of "Leute." Leute, as we saw in the last chapter, is that
strict regard for human and divine law which forms the social matrix
of love. With love and law he makes up the case, kind, and number
of man's life in its agreement with God's will. Thus he makes sense
only in a world view which sets up an intelligible and certain bond
between man's free acts and God's free response. Like Cacciaguida in
Learning and Grace
his words to Dante,41 though with some hedging, Leute tells Will to
speak out bravely the hard truths he has learned. Such a commission
is an endorsement of the human powers which had so seriously been
put in question.
Leute's caution to the dreamer-"Parum lauda; vitupera parcius"-
is given an odd twist by Scripture, who pops up again and connects it
ominously with the text, "Many are called, but few are chosen"
(B.XI.112-14; Matt. 22:14). This time the dreamer is able to
cope with Scripture's apparent determinism by using his reason and
adducing other Scriptural passages to show how God's mercy offers
salvation to all. Scripture agrees:
"That is soop," seide Scripture; "may no synne lette
Mercy al to amende and Mekenesse hir folwe;
For Pei beb, as oure bokes teller, aboue goddes werkes:
Misericordia eius super omnia opera eius."
(B.XI. 137-39 )42
The dreamer wins this argument easily because, instead of simply
grasping at texts, he is acting like a learned interpreter of Scripture
rather than a passive receiver of it. In so doing he regains some of
what he lost in rejecting Clergy.43
41. Paradiso 17.124ff.
42. The Latin text is Ps. 145:9 (Authorized Version).
43. These lines are difficult and can give rise to varying interpretations, of
which Wittig's deserves the most careful consideration. He finds in Will's re-
sponse to Scripture a "false security" based on "the hypothesis that all Chris-
tians, once baptized into the life of grace, are saved. The only danger of
damnation he sees threaten a Christian is the renunciation of the faith, some-
thing he thinks could never occur [lines 125-26]. Will simply relies on man's
being saved by reason, conscience, and contrition, no matter how straying and
heedless his life" ("Inward Journey," p. 258). There is, first of all, a logical
difficulty in the last sentence quoted. A man saved by "reason, conscience, and
contrition" (cf. B.XI.131-36) has, by definition, renounced his "straying and
heedless life." These agents of salvation are not simply personifications;
they are vigorous and decisive movements of the aroused intellect and will.
Further, Wittig never deals with Scripture's unequivocal assent to Will's
hypothesis-"That is soo>"-though he does quote it. We certainly must accept
Scripture's endorsement. The real difficulty is in the passage beginning line 123,
where Langland compares renunciation of faith by a baptized person to the
renunciation of a lord's charter by a churl, finding the first as obviously im-
possible as the second. (For the legal principle involved see Parallel Texts,
2:168-69.) The analogy can apply logically only to the "indelible sacramental
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
Characteristically, the argument swings to the opposite extreme,
when Trajan, a good pagan who had been saved, bursts on the scene
crying "Ye? baw for bokes!" (B.XI.140) and arguing for the sole suf-
ficiency of good works motivated by love, without Clergy or even the
sacraments. Langland's account of Trajan's salvation differs in this
from Dante's and from "all known authorities in making Trajan's sal-
vation depend solely upon his own virtues."44 As R. W. Frank sug-
gests, Langland "clearly altered the Trajan story to illustrate the
importance for salvation of good works."45 The hope Langland ex-
presses here is a rather daring one and has a good deal in common
with some of the more optimistic expressions of Ockhamist indeter-
minism, for instance, with Holkot's assurance that if a man does his
very best (facit quod in se est), God will respond with the gift of
grace, even though He is not absolutely obliged to.46 To that extent,
character" attributed to baptism (as well as confirmation and ordination),
which makes it forever valid and unrepeatable, even for heretics and apostates.
(See "Bapteme" and "Caractere sacramental" in Dictionnaire de Theologie
Catholique [Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ane, 1932], 2:167-378, 1698-1708,
esp. 204-6, 1700, 1706.) Will seems to make this character a guarantee of
salvation. That is, he seems to make it indistinguishable from grace, which it
certainly is not. I cannot help believing that this represents a wish just short
of conviction on the part of Langland himself (cf. B.XVIII.371-72, 377-78),
but it is possible to read Will's lines as a somewhat imprecise statement of a
more orthodox position. Scripture's first text ("Multi enim sunt vocati; pauci
vero electi," Matt. 22:14) seems to state a categorical exclusion of many from
salvation. Will's response points to the strong possibility, if not the certainty,
of their acceptance. The role of man's will and works is specified, though per-
haps with insufficient emphasis (cf. 119, 131-36). Will stresses instead the
guarantee of baptism, which is offered to all (114), that he is not excluded.
Scripture's assent is specifically directed to this negative guarantee: ". may
no synne lette / Mercy al to amende and Mekenesse hir folwe" (138). That
last conditional clause brings the human responsibility into somewhat sharper
relief than Will had done, but this is an adjustment of emphasis within a
general assent to the substance of Will's statement.
44. R. W. Chambers, "Long Will, Dante, and the Righteous Heathen," in
Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, 9 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1924):66. Dante's account of Trajan's salvation is in Para-
diso 20.106ff. T. P. Dunning, in "Langland and the Salvation of the Heathen,"
Medium Aevum 12 (1943):45-54, argues for Langland's general orthodoxy
on this point. R. W. Frank, Salvation, pp. 60ff., maintains Chambers's view. It
seems to me that regardless of his real orthodoxy or heterodoxy Langland felt
as though he were going out on a limb for the righteous heathen.
45. Frank, Salvation, p. 61. Cf. Wittig, pp. 249-55.
46. See Heiko Augustinus Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology:
Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1963), pp. 235-48, esp. 246. Oberman argues throughout his work that
Leff and others have laid too much stress on the skeptical elements in the
thought of the Ockhamists.
Learning and Grace
Langland is himself an Ockhamist: he will subscribe to indeterminism
as long as it opens doors to salvation.
He develops his position in a long speech which finally wobbles
out of control and which, in B, is not clearly assigned to anyone.47
Trajan, we are told, attributes his salvation to his adherence to the
law of love which he, like Study, calls a "leel science" transcending
all others (B.XI.167, 171-72). Rather quickly, Langland identifies
the law of love with the ideal of patient poverty, which in Passus XIII
will be embodied in the riddling Patience. Patient poverty is the good
life (or "Dowel") in its essence, but not everyone is called to it.
Some, like Trajan himself in history and legend, will follow less per-
fect lives which gain their legitimacy from care and love for the pa-
tient poor,4s who are types of Christ in this world:
For oure Ioye and oure luel, Iesu crist of heuene,
In a pouere mannes apparaille pursue vs euere,
And lokeb on vs in hir liknesse and Pat wib louely chere
To known vs by oure kynde herte and castynge of oure ei3en,
Wheiper we loue be lordes here before be lord of blisse;
Why I meue bis matere is most for be pouere;
For in hir liknesse oure lord lome hap ben yknowe.
Witnesse in be Pask wyke, whan he yede to Emaus;
And in be apparaille of a pouere man and pilgrymes liknesse
Many tyme god hap ben met among nedy people,
Ther neuere segge hym sei3 in secte of be riche.
(B.XI.185-89, 232-34, 243-45)
Langland circles back obsessively to this scene of recognition, where
the figure of Christ Himself on earth assures us that heaven and earth
are still bound together as they were in the Incarnation. We see this
bond in human good works which define themselves as such by their
47. Skeat attributes the speech to Leute, but with no clear justification, in
Parallel Texts, 2:169; Donaldson suggests that Will himself is the speaker, in
C-Text, pp. 173-74; Kirk, Dream Thought, p. 136, suggests Scripture, or, just
possibly, Trajan. The C-text gives the speech to Recklessness.
48. Dante, in Purgatorio 10.73-96, alludes to a widely known story of
Trajan's gracious assistance to a poor widow and makes him a type of the
virtue of humility. This episode aroused Gregory to his prayers for Trajan's
salvation. See Wittig for an account of the tradition (pp. 249-55).
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
relation to patient poverty. Our surprised encounters with the very
face of Christ watching us with loving concern refute the disjunc-
tions of the Ockhamists. There is a real connection between God and
his creatures, between God's free will and man's. It is not proven by
logical argumentation but by the sudden glimpse of a face in the
crowd, often the face of a poor man, sometimes the face of an honest
By the end of Passus XI, then, Will once more begins to come to
terms with the world as reflection of the divine Idea. Though it may
be difficult to remember after so much digression and confusion, the
passage in which he does so recalls the speech of Wit in Passus IX:
And slepynge I sei3 al Pis, and sipen cam kynde
And nempned me by my name and bad me nymen hede,
And Poru3 Pe wondres of Pis world wit for to take.
And on a mountaigne Pat myddelerpe hi3te, as me bo bou3te,
I was fet fork by forbisenes to knowe
Thorugh ech a creature kynde my creator to louye.
To call God "Kynde" as Wit had done is to speak of Him as intel-
ligible through the order of nature which He has created. The point
is made even more precisely in the C-text where "Myddel-erde" is not
a mountain but a mirror:
Thus Rechelessnesse in a rage a-resonede clergie,
And scornede Scripture that meny skyles shewede,
Til that Kynde cam Clergie to helpen,
And in the myrour of Myddel-erde made hym eft to loke,
To knowe by ech creature Kynde to louye.
(C.XIV. 129-33 )50
It is, in fact, the very mirror Dame Fortune offered to Will, but per-
haps now it is being held at a different angle. Once Will gets over his
petulant rage with Clergy and Scripture the world as mirror regains
49. In Skeat the last line (his line 317) reads: "Thorugh eche a creature
and Kynde my creature to louye." Kane and Donaldson's reading, by elim-
inating "and," significantly alters syntax and sense.
50. The protagonist in this part of the C-text is not the Dreamer but Reck-
lessness, in a much expanded role. See Donaldson, C-Text, pp. 171ff.
Learning and Grace
its proper function. Here, more clearly than anywhere else, Langland
rejects the mystical way to God by forgetfulness of His creatures. His
God is named "Kynde" and we reach Him by "a kynde knowing."
The reappearance of Reason shows further this healing of the
breach between God and creation. Reason has a dual aspect in medi-
eval thought. On the one hand it is the power of the individual rational
intellect. On the other, it is the transcendent order by which God cre-
ated the world. It is in this aspect that it appears as the quasi-angelic
Ratio governing creation. His very appearance asserts an ultimate
harmony between the order of the mind and the order of creation and
heals the incisions of Ockham's razor, conferring at once a value and
a limitation on the workings of man's intellect. The value is to be
found in the intellectual discovery of order, a discovery which re-
traces creation to the Wisdom which is our mind's exemplar. The
limitation is placed on our inquiries into why God ordered things in
such a way. To do this is to substitute contingency for what had
seemed a necessary order, and to threaten the intelligibility of crea-
tion and its link to God. This was the irreverence of Ockhamism, and
it is the fault of Will in his exchange with Reason. He questions one
specific point in the order of creation, why Reason does not govern
men as infallibly as he governs beasts. Langland apparently consid-
ered this part of a more general questioning, because in the next
Passus Imaginatif rebukes the dreamer for having asked Reason why
flowers have certain colors, why different kinds of birds build certain
kinds of nests, and so on (B.XII.217ff.). To ask such questions,
which cannot be answered by our reasons as such but require empiri-
cal investigation, is really to call into doubt the existence of Reason
as a stable, objective entity, as a divine idea corresponding to our
subjective reason and securing its stability. It is to wield Ockham's
razor once again.
The specific question raised by the dreamer, why Reason does not
govern men as surely as he does beasts, is a commonplace in discus-
sions of the order of Nature. It is raised, for example, in the popular
work of Alain de Lille, De Planctu Naturae.51 Reason's answer is that
such governance is possible to God, but its time is not yet. God
knows when its time will come and, in the meanwhile, puts up with
man's waywardness. Our duty in response is to follow the example of
51. Nature's complaint here, like Will's, has to do with sexual excesses,
though mainly those of sodomy. See De planctu naturae (PL 210:448-50), a
notable instance of grammatical metaphor.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
His patience in our inquiries, like Reason himself who, in his first
appearance (B.IV.20), rode a horse named "suffre-til-I-se-my-tyme."
In the present state of things, Reason, as the law of God, governs ani-
mals, plants, and inanimate nature, those parts of nature which do
not have reason in themselves. Through Reason, Kind "is be pies
patron and putted it in hir ere / That pere be Jorn is Pikkest to
buylden and brede" (B.XII.227-28). If God governed man in the
same way, we would be right back in Bradwardine's determinist uni-
verse where God is "senior partner" in all acts of our wills. Will's
impetuous demand for hard and final answers threatens to drive him
into the very predestinarianism that had chilled his heart in Passus X.
Reason does not govern men as it does animals because it is man's
internal possession as well as his external norm. Man is free, and thus
capable of sin and of the love that saved Trajan and that finds the
face of Christ among the patient poor. The time is still to come when
reason as internal faculty and Reason as transcendent norm will co-
incide. Their coincidence will be accompanied by others, between the
individual and social conscience, between leute and law, between the
king in his Body Natural and in his Body Politic. In the meantime,
until that ideal order is realized, Kind "draws an example of it ex-
ternally, so that what was known only to him may be seen plainly by
others" in the order of Nature.52
We shall not move beyond this by our own powers. When we try
to do so, as the inquisitive dreamer does, we irreverently question the
order established by God. When we have learned that order, when
we see through it the objective norm of Reason, then we can only
follow Reason's counsel to wait patiently for God's next gesture
toward His creation. It is at this point that Truth becomes Love, as it
did in Lady Holy Church's speech. When the dreamer resumes his
progress toward the vision of the Redemption his guide will be Pa-
tience and his companion will be Conscience, whom we have not seen
since the opening scenes in the king's court. Having gained the humil-
ity and sufferance which are the final fruits of intellectualism the
dreamer can struggle forward into the regions that seemed so misty
to Study. His last guides will be those of Theology, specifically the
three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which last turns
out to be Piers and Christ Himself. We know that the dreamer is
ready for this next stage of the journey when he tells Imaginatif, with-
52. Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon, p. 156.
Learning and Grace
out coaching, what Do-well is: "To se much and suffre moore, certes,
is dowel" (B.XI.412). Such sufferance is both individual and social,
awaiting the salvation of the soul and the apocalyptic reformation of
the world to the image of God. It is the counsel of Reason in both his
aspects, and it will soon be personified in Patience.
Imaginatif, whose conversation with Will in Passus XII has such pivo-
tal importance in the poem, is a very difficult faculty to define. Medi-
eval thought gives the vis imaginative a rather lowly role as an "in-
ternal sense" collecting and coordinating sense impressions. In some
accounts it has a sort of rudimentary calculativee and deliberative"
function, suggesting the pleasure or pain likely to arise from the ob-
jects of the senses.53 It could thus be related to the virtue of prudence
as Langland's character seems to be when he recounts his services to
I haue folwed bee, in feip,, ise fyue and fourty wynter,
And many tymes haue meued Pee to mynne on Pyn ende,
And how fele fernyeres are faren and so fewe to come;
And of Pi wilde wantownesse whiles Pow yong were
To amende it in Pi myddel age, lest my3t ke faille
In Pyn olde elde, Pat yuele kan suffre
Pouerte or penaunce, or preyeres bidde.
Morton Bloomfield notes "that 'imaginatif' in any medieval psycho-
logical system would be responsible for dreams," so that "It would be
proper for the putative source of the dreams Will was dreaming
to be his instructor, for it was imagination (as an internal sense)
which gave him the framework of his poem."55 I think that this can
53. See H. S. V. Jones, "Imaginatif in Piers Plowman," Journal of English
and Germanic Philology 13 (1914):583-88; Randolph Quirk, "Vis Imagina-
tiva," ibid. 53 (1954):81-83; Wittig, "Inward Journey," pp. 271-72; and
"Imaginatif," 2 a, b, c, in Middle English Dictionary, ed. H. Kurath et al.
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1954-).
54. Langland consistently uses "imagine" with its common ME connota-
tion of prudential judgment, whether moral or immoral; cf. B.XIII.357-59;
55. Apocalypse, p. 172. Bloomfield also suggests that Langland may have
been influenced by treatments of imagination as a prophetic faculty in Arabic
and Jewish philosophy. Dante's Altaa fantasia" (Paradiso 33.142) seems to
reflect some such heightening of the faculty's position. In the case of Imaginatif.
Piers Plowman and the Image of God
be made more specific. Imaginatif claims responsibility not for all the
dreams in the poem (though he might), but for the inner dream which
has just concluded. He says he has followed the dreamer "Pise fyue
and fourty wynter," and near the beginning of the inner dream Will
tells us that "Coueitise of ei3es folwed me fourty wynter and a
fifte moore" (B.XI.46, 47). This limitation of his scope of action is
understandable since he himself is appearing in a dream, as we are
reminded at the end of his speech when the dreamer "awaked Perwip"
Joseph Wittig calls attention to the adjectival form of the charac-
ter's name, "Imaginatif" rather than "Imaginacioun," finding in it "a
clear tendency .. to refer, not to one limited faculty, but to a more
inclusive activity one might describe as 'representing vividly to one-
self.' Excited to a personal confrontation of his culpability and
possible damnation and moved by the emotions of fear and shame
experienced in Passus 11, the dreamer becomes attentive and con-
cerned about the thought of his own end, becomes in fact 'imagi-
Imaginatif's advice to the dreamer is remarkable for the way it re-
duces the highly abstract issues of the inner dream to common sense
judgments; and he does this without losing sight of the larger mys-
teries that his counsels imply. Like a popular preacher, he handles
Scripture with a sometimes loose regard for the principal intent of the
letter in order to make a point about the practical facts of moral life.
One of his more important points, the value of good works and the
salvation of the righteous heathen, is based on a rather slanted read-
ing of 1 Peter 4:18:
"Contra!" quod Ymaginatif boo and comsed to loure,
And seide, "Saluabitur vix lustus in die ludicij;
Ergo saluabitur," quod he and seide na moore latyn.
though, this seems to me a little more than the text will bear. Perhaps we
should follow Wittig's suggestion (pp. 273-74) that the assumption that Imagi-
natif's role is "exalted" is unwarranted and leads to false problems in identify-
56. The connection between the two lines seems confirmed by the careful
omission of both references to forty-five years in the C-text. Apparently this is
autobiographical and does not fit Recklessness, who replaces the dreamer in
C. Cf. C.XIII.lff., and C.XV.lff.
57. "Inward Journey," pp. 272, 274.
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